Tony Allen Biography
Tony Oladipo Allen (July 20th 1940 – 30 April 2020) was a Nigerian drummer, composer, and songwriter who lived and worked in Paris, France. Allen was the drummer and musical director of Fela Kuti‘s band Africa ’70 from 1968 to 1979, and was one of the primary co-founders of the genre of Afrobeat music. Fela once stated that, “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.”He was described by Brian Eno as “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”.
Allen’s career and life story were documented in his 2013 autobiography Tony Allen: Master Drummer of Afrobeat, co-written with author/musician Michael E. Veal, who previously wrote a comprehensive biography of Fela Kuti.
Allen was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He began playing drums at the age of 18, while working as an engineer for a radio station. Allen was influenced by music his father listened to: Jùjú, a popular Yoruba music from the 1940s, but also American jazz, and the growing highlife scene in Nigeria and Ghana. Allen worked hard to develop a unique voice on the drums, feverishly studying LPs and magazine articles by Max Roach and Art Blakey, but also revolutionary Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren (later known as Kofi Ghanaba – who developed a highly sought-after sound that mixed tribal Ghanaian drumming with bop – working with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach).
Allen was hired by “Sir” Victor Olaiya to play claves with his highlife band, the Cool Cats. Allen was able to fill the drum set chair when the former Cool Cats drummer left the band. Allen later played with Agu Norris and the Heatwaves, the Nigerian Messengers, and the Melody Makers.
Fela and Africa ’70
In 1964, Fela Kuti invited Allen to audition for a jazz-highlife band he was forming. Kuti and Allen had played together as sidemen in the Lagos circuit. Fela complimented Allen’s unique sound: “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?” Thus Allen became an original member of Kuti’s “Koola Lobitos” highlife-jazz band.
In 1969, following a turbulent and educational trip to the United States, Allen served as the musical director of Fela’s band, Africa ’70, which developed a new militant African sound, mixing the heavy groove and universal appeal of soul with jazz, highlife, and the polyrhythmic template of Yoruba conventions. Allen developed a novel style to complement Fela’s new African groove that blended these disparate genres.
Allen recounted how he and Fela wrote in 1970: “Fela used to write out the parts for all the musicians in the band (Africa ’70). I was the only one who originated the music I played. Fela would ask what type of rhythm I wanted to play.… You can tell a good drummer because we… have four limbs… and they are… playing different things… the patterns don’t just come from Yoruba… [but] other parts of Nigeria and Africa.”
Allen recorded more than 30 albums with Fela and Africa ’70. But by the late 1970s, dissension was growing in the ranks of Africa ’70. Arguments over royalties/pay and recognition grew in intensity. As inventor of the rhythms that underpinned Afrobeat and musical director, Allen felt especially slighted. Fela stood his ground, stating that he would get the royalties for his songs. Fela did support Allen’s three solo recordings: Jealousy (’75), Progress (’77), No Accommodation For Lagos (’79), but by 1979, Allen chose to leave Africa ’70, taking many members with him. “‘What makes me decide it’s time to go? It’s … everything…and (his) carelessness…like he doesn’t care, like he doesn’t know …he doesn’t feel he’s done anything (wrong). And with all the parasites around too…. there were 71 people on tour by now and only 30 working in the band….you got to ask why. Those guys were sapping Fela of his Force, of his Music.’ So Tony moved on, once again in search of his own sound.”
Afrobeat to Afrofunk
Allen formed his own group, recording No Discrimination in 1980, and performing in Lagos until emigrating to London in 1984. Later moving to Paris, Allen recorded with King Sunny Adé, Ray Lema and Manu Dibango. Allen recorded N.E.P.A. in 1985.
Allen returned with a much anticipated new project for his 13th release. Recorded live in Lagos, with a full-sized Afrobeat band, Lagos No Shaking (Lagos is OK) signified Allen’s return to roots Afrobeat after forays into avant-garde electronica hybrids. Lagos No Shaking was released on 13 June 2006.
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 played drums throughout the 2003 album Love Trap by Susheela Raman and also performed with her live.
In 2004 Allen recorded with French electronic artist Sébastien Tellier on the album Politics including the hit song “La Ritournelle”.
In 2006 Allen recorded the album trippin with the Amsterdam based New Cool Collective Mixing his Afrobeat with jazz and did a series of concerts in the Netherlands, among then the Lowlands Festival.
In 2006, Allen joined Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon, and Simon Tong as drummer for the Good, the Bad & the Queen. Allen contacted Albarn after hearing the 2000 single “Music Is My Radar” by Albarn’s band Blur, which references him. They released their self-titled debut album in 2007, followed by Merrie Land in 2018.
Allen played drums on two tracks on the 2007 album 5:55 by Charlotte Gainsbourg: “5:55” and “Night-Time Intermission”, backed by French duo Air and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp.
He was a featured artist on Zap Mama’s albums Supermoon (2007) and ReCreation (2009), adding his voice to the tracks “1000 Ways” and “African Diamond.” Allen also contributed drums on “People Dansa”, an afrobeat rhythm-fuelled track on the second album of the Brazilian singer Flavia Coelho, released in 2014.
Allen has influenced a range of artists across a number of genres. In the single “Music Is My Radar” (2000) Blur pay homage to him, and the song ends with Damon Albarn repeating the phrase “Tony Allen got me dancing.”
Allen collaborated with Albarn and Flea in a project called Rocket Juice and The Moon with an album released in 2012. Albarn collaborated with him again for the single “Go Back” in 2014, that is part of the album Film of Life, released in October.
In 2017, he released A Tribute to Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, a four-song EP on Blue Note Records featuring a reworked Afrobeat version of Art Blakey’s “Moanin'”.
In 2017, Allen collaborated with Malian singer Oumou Sangaré for the track “Yere faga” from her album Mogoya.
In 2018, Allen recorded E.P. Tomorrow Comes The Harvest with Techno DJ Jeff Mills.
In 2019, filmmaker Opiyo Okeyo released the documentary film Birth of Afrobeat about Allen’s life in music. The film screened at American Black Film Festival and won the 21st Century Fox Global Inclusion Award for Emerging Voices at the BlackStar Film Festival.Birth of Afrobeat was acquired by American Public Television and had its television premiere January 20, 2020 on PBS.
In 2020, Allen featured on the Gorillaz track “How Far?” alongside Skepta, as part of the band’s Song Machine series.