Remembering Tony Allen, Afrobeat originator and Fela Kuti’s drummer

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Tony Allen performing at Oslo Jazz Festival 2015 Photo by Tore Sætre (Creative Commons)

Tony Allen, famous for his work as Fela’s drummer, has died in Paris, according to Rolling Stone. He was born in 1940, and there has not been any word on the cause of death. 

Tony Allen was the engine pushing the big sound of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, but it would have been easy to miss that. Given Fela’s huge band, big James Brown-style horn section and provocative dancers (most of whom were his many wives) it would be easy to miss the drummer.

The working bond between Fela and Allen was deep. Fela wanted a drummer who could play jazz, both subtle rhythms and power beats like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, as well as African polyrhythms that are an integral part of Nigerian music. It also helped that Allen was a big fan of Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Max Roach and knew their styles well. He learned about American jazz drummers while working as a technician for Nigerian national radio. As a self-taught drummer, he listened and learned from these iconic big band and bebop drummers.

Allen came to Los Angeles with Fela’s first band, Koola Lobitos in 1969, recording the ’69 Los Angeles Sessions. It was in Los Angeles that Fela met Sandra Izsadore, who became not only the only female singer in his band but also his muse, turning him on to black nationalism and the black power. Fela then formed his first major band, Africa 70.
 

Fela died in Lagos in 1997, but Allen continued to perform and record. Moving to Paris, Allen worked with other musicians in a variety of styles: French musician Doctor L, English musician Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz.

Fela once said “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.” Brian Eno also chimed in, saying that Allen was “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived.” 

In 2013, Allen published an autobiography Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat, co-written with musician Michael E. Veal, the latter also having written an earlier biography of Fela Kuti.

KCRW played a lot of Fela over the past 35 years, and Fela stopped by Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1986. I took him to task over his sexist attitude toward women and Fela didn’t appreciate that. 

Tony Allen preferred to stay out of the forefront like Fela, but his drumming and versatility beyond Afrobeat won him many fans all over the world. He will be missed.

I’ve created a short playlist of some of my favorite Allen songs, including a track from Psycho On Da Bus and N.E.P.A. (Never Expect Power Always, a play on words after Nigerian Electric Power Authority) the unreliable and unpredictable national electric company.