The World Through Music and Culture

Tony Allen puts “the Beat in Afro-beat.”

Tony Allen on drums. Photo by Niall Macaulay

From the Archive

English composer and producer Brian Eno once said that Nigerian-born master Afro-beat drummer, Tony Allen is “perhaps the greatest drummer ever.” Allen, also a composer and songwriter, along with the legendary Fela Kuti, pioneered Afro-beat music. Allen is often credited with “putting the beat in Afro-beat.” Aged 74, Allen, now based
in Paris, is still as active as ever.

You cannot help but feel star struck when you shake the hand of the great Afro-beat drummer, Tony Allen. Anyone who is a fan of African music has danced to his grooves. Self-taught, Allen didn’t start playing drums until he was eighteen. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, he hooked up with the great master of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, and became the drummer and musical director for his band, Africa 70, from 1968 – 1979. Kuti and Allen were a musical force to reckon with, as Kuti put it “without Tony Allen, there would be no AfroBeat.”

The highly charged existence of the late Fela Kuti – the activist, socialist, political instigator – was legendary inside and outside of Nigeria. His music was a direct attack on the dictatorships and military regimes in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s. He even attempted a run for president. He was often the target of the people he spoke out against.
After over a decade of being the mainstay of Kuti’s band, Tony Allen grew weary of the constant turmoil and lack of credit, and decided it was time to go solo.

“15 years was enough for me. His policies are not my policies. i was just able to stand it for a while because i believed in hm and loved him so much. as far as musically, I have never seen anything like that and in order for me to achieve what i wanted to be. i was looking for a challenge. Fela’s music was a challenge for me,” Allen continues. “Every time he wrote a song, it was a challenge for me. Apart from his policies. He is a politician, i am not a politician. Ok, I am with you musically, but politically. you want to fight the government and you want to fight with music which is spread all over. This could change something, the music is for the masses. It didn’t change anything. It got worse. Anytime there was a raid, I got arrested and spent 3 days in jail. I wanted to be a musician, not someone who was going to be in jail all the time.”

Tony Allen didn’t just want to part ways with Fela to avoid political strife, he wanted to try experimenting with new styles, taking Afro-beat in new directions:

“When I got my own way, I was able to do music the way i wanted. Afrobeat is not just to be militant. Acrobat can be anything, it can be a love song. That is why i decided, OK, I am the beat. The beat is me and i can control my beat and i want to take my beat far. I was out of that package. He has children, if anyone should follow those footsteps, it should be his children,” says Tony Allen. “Not me, i have my own mission. I play Afrobeat. but it is not my limit. My is, i play with everyone. Everyone, different styles. I will give them what suits their music. That is what I am here for.”

But even though he claims he’s just a musician. There are political issues that Allen is passionate about and they play a big part in the music he writes.This song, “Boat Journey” is a kind of open letter to all African refugees attempting to migrate illegally to Europe, warning them that it is not worth the dangerous journey. Italy, Spain and Greece don’t make it easy once they reach their soil.

For example, it is estimated that over a hundred thousand migrants have attempted to come to Italy in 2014 alone, many of them dying on the boat journey trying to get there. Both the illegal migrants and the locals find it hard to deal with the complex situation. Italy has a hard time dealing with the huge influx of illegal migrants, and the migrants themselves rarely get the chance to stay on in Europe. In several of his songs, Allen talks about their fate and warns would-be migrants of the perilous journey.

“They are crossing the Atlantic from Africa to come to Europe. They are running away from a situation at home. How do they think that things are ‘rosy’ where they want to go?” asks Allen. “My advice is, everybody has their right to change their situation. Why cannot they do it safely. Go to the embassy. Go get a passport, visa. Buy a flight. You
arrive in what country you chose safely.”

Human traffickers profit hugely from those fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. But for most illegal migrants, the golden future they hope for never comes true.

“Those they rescue at the sea. They bring them ashore. They are out safe but not in this country, direct into jail. Jail is indefinite. They cannot imagine when they either release them into the country or send them back home. what is the point in that? They have left everything.” Allen describes. “No house, no work. You see them opening the dustbin to look for food. I have seen too much of these things. everyone wants to change their situation. do it safely. arrive in the country, but by the airport. there is no job waiting for you anywhere.”

“Go Back,” a sublime song has a powerful companion video with British musician and Blur frontman Damon Albarn on guest vocals. Allen hopes his songs discourage refugees from making the dangerous journey.

It’s on Tony Allen’s latest release, “Film of Life.” , one of the many musical projects the creative percussionist has been involved in in recent years. Allen has become a frequent collaborator with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project set up to promote artistic collaboration between African and western musicians and to widen the appreciation of African music and culture.

At 74, Allen sees no limits on his music. And he continues working with other renowned artists such as Zap Mamma, a Belgian all- female Afro-pop group, and Flea, bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He enjoys the challenge.

“I am open to anything, any style. I am a musician. i am not stagnant. I am a composer too. if you invite me to play music with you, i am not going to do what i know. i am going to play with what fits with this music, not the music of the past,” says Allen.






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