Fela Kuti did not invent afrobeat, Fela and Tony birthed it together. Without Tony Allen there is no afrobeat – FLEA.
Nigerian drummer and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Oladipo Allen, aged 79 has been confirmed dead at Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris. His manger, Eric Trosser confirmed to France24 that he died of abdominal aortic aneurysm and not coronavirus, adding that he was in great shape before passing on.
The veteran jazz drummer was born into a middle-class family in 1940 which gave him some privilege to be exposed to great music and the works of legendary jazz drummers like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach. He taught himself how to play the drums and developed his own unique style with influences from his heroes. He later met the drummer Frank Butler, who motivated him to practice drumming on pillows.
In the early 1960s, Allen became a regular on the Lagos club circuit which was dominated by the West African highlife sound. He played in an outfit dubbed the Cool Cats and then moved on to help better-known highlife artists like Victor Olaiya. He crossed paths with Fela Anikulapo Kuti in 1964 and became a drummer in Kuti’s Koola Lobitos band. The group began to make music which was considered different from the regular highlife people were accustomed to at that time.
Afrobeat, at its inception, was full-band dance music, boosted by searing, intricate horn parts, scratchy, relentless guitar, and agitated, hyperactive basslines deeply rooted in jazz and African highlife. By 1968/69, the band had evolved into Fela’s groundbreaking Afrika70, led by Allen on drums with Lekan Animashaun on baritone saxophone. He was with Fela for more than a decade until the drummer decided to quit the band in 1978 due to Fela’s constant and rough clashes with the military government.
According to Quartz, things came to a head in 1978 on a financially ill-fated tour which took the 40-piece band to the West Berlin Jazz Festival. Fela says he was paid $100,000 but by the time he’d covered all the band’s travel and lodge expenses the tour was running at a loss. Allen had had enough and it was the last time he played with the band. The album Vagabonds in Power (VIP) was recorded live at the festival.
Allen played a strong role in the making and acceptability of Afrobeat sound not just in Nigeria but across the United States and Europe. After departing Afrika70, he went on to release a string of solo albums and numerous collaborations with several renowned acts across the globe.
He formed his own group, recording No Discrimination in 1980, and performing in Lagos until emigrating to London in 1984. He later moved to Paris and recorded with King Sunny Adé, Ray Lema and Manu Dibango. He developed a new hybrid sound, deconstructing and fusing Afrobeat with electronica, dub, R&B, and rap, hence birthing afro-funk.
In 2002, Allen appeared on the Red Hot Organization‘s compilation album Red Hot and Riot in tribute to Fela Kuti. Allen appeared alongside Res, Ray Lema, Baaba Maal, Positive Black Soul and Archie Shepp on a track entitled “No Agreement.”
Allen returned with a much anticipated new project for his 13th release. Recorded live in Lagos, with a full-sized Afrobeat band in June 2006, Lagos No Shaking. This project signified Allen’s return to roots Afrobeat after forays into avant-garde electronica hybrids.
In recent years, Allen reconnected with his jazz roots, recording a tribute EP for his “hero” Art Blakey and teaming up with Jeff Mills for 2018’s Tomorrow Comes the Harvest. Earlier this year, Allen released Rejoice, a collaboration with late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.