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Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat

Percussion instruments, especially drums are essential in West African music and it figures to show that one of the greatest drummers of all time was West African. Tony Oladipo Allen was born on August 12th, 1940 in Lagos, and as a Drummer, he revolutionized the way the world (Africans included) viewed music and playing the drums.
Growing up in Lagos, he listened to Nigerian music like highlife which was the popular music in those days, but he fell in love with jazz and studied Jazz drummers such as Gene Krupa, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Tony Williams and others. He was largely self-taught and practised playing on plastic chairs in his early years. The prevalent high-life drummers of that era didn’t use hi-hats while playing high-life, but Tony did, and the whoosh, rustle and ping of his hi-hats animated his drumming with an additional layer of polyrhythm, reshaping the way people think about playing high life rhythms.
Tony met with Fela before he was playing afrobeat and needed a Drummer for his jazz band saying “there are no jazz drummers in Nigeria.” Fela was so impressed that he invited him to a gig playing jazz for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), and the rest is history. That first band’s pure jazz drew only small audiences, and Fela soon decided to combine jazz with African pop; as Fela Ransome-Kuti and His Koola Lobitos, the band played what it called “highlife jazz”. After this, a Ghanaian promoter, Raymond Aziz came up with the name “Afrobeat”.
During a lengthy stay in Los Angeles in 1969 when the band was on tour in the United States, Fela grew politicized by the Black Power movement. When the band returned to Nigeria, Fela renamed it first Nigeria 70 and then Africa 70. His new songs were more streamlined and merged James Brown-style funk with Mr. Allen’s rolling, crackling rhythms. Fela wrote the music for everyone else in the band but allowed Mr. Allen to write his parts, what made him so successful was his unique style of drumming which was gotten from merging styles from jazz, African traditional music, funk etc; he could play them all. And the result was Afrobeat: a sizzling concoction of jazz and funk with Ghanaian and Nigerian highlife that aligned Allen’s polyrhythmic grooves with strident horns and politicised chants.
His time with Fela and the Africa 70 ended in 1979 with disputes over payments and royalties, also the drama and conflict that surrounded Fela’s highly politicised music.
After Fela, Mr. Allen went solo and recorded a number of albums, working with Artistes like Angelique kodjo, Flea, Charlotte Gainsbourg and – of course – Damon Albarn (Gorillaz), who has worked with him on various projects including Africa Express and the Good, the Bad and the Queen.
One of my best stories about Mr Allen was when he talked about how drumming is less physical saying;
“There was a time when I used to drum for up to six hours with no breaks. The vibe in the crowd was such that I wouldn’t even notice. But it’s finished now. I’m playing in Europe now and in Europe it’s zero. They don’t make me play! Sometimes I travel all the way from here to a fucking country far away by flight just to play for 45 minutes! It’s frustrating, you know. They say: ‘You are paid!’ Fuck the money! It’s not the money side. It’s like torture, doing all that journey and stress just to play for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, I’m just warming up!”.
Rest in peace Tony Allen.

Sources:
The Guardian

NY Times

The Guardian

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