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TONY ALLEN (FELA KUTI)
Born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1940, of mixed Nigerian and Ghanaian parentage, Tony Allen taught himself to play by listening to records made by the American jazz drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. He began working as a professional musician in 1960, gigging around Lagos and variously playing highlife and jazz. Today living in Paris, Allen has long been acknowledged as Africa's finest kit drummer and one of it's most influential musicians, the man who with Fela Anikulapo Kuti created Afrobeat - the hard driving, James Brown funk-infused, and politically engaged style which became such a dominant force in African music and whose influence continues to spread today.
Allen had to overcome strong parental opposition to realise his dream of becoming a professional musician. "My parents were...not keen. Back then, in Lagos, musicians were more or less thought of as beggars, or worse. But I just put it in front of them. I was an electrical technician, but I wanted to make a change. My mother was never happy about it, but my father, who was an amateur musician, eventually agreed."
Allen started out as a jazz drummer. "Art Blakey was my big influence, and before that, before I started club crawling, it was Gene Krupa. When I started, I tried to play like Gene Krupa. Then I discovered Blue Note Records and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers - it opened up another style to me. Max Roach was important too. I studied some lessons he wrote in Down Beat magazine about how to play high-hats. Most drummers in Lagos never used them, they were just a decoration on the kit, and I'd always thought that was something incomplete."
Allen was playing with the Western Toppers when he met Kuti in 1964. "Fela had been presenting a jazz records programme on NBC (Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation) on Friday nights. He decided he wanted to form his own jazz band and play the music himself in the clubs. He'd tried out several drummers, but none of them were what he was looking for. He began to think there was no-one suitable in Africa. Then someone recommended me to him. I auditioned - and he asked me if I'd learnt to play in the USA! I had the style he wanted. We played strictly jazz together for about a year, as the Fela Ransome Kuti Jazz Quartet, before we started Koola Lobitos."
"Fela said I sounded like four drummers," says Allen. "I was the only one who originated the music I played." Fela used to write out the parts for all the other musicians. If Allen sounded like four drummers, it could have been because, in his mature Afrika 70 style, he was drawing on four different styles - highlife, soul/funk, jazz and traditional African drumming. A unique and mighty sound. (In 1970 when James Brown played in Nigeria, his arranger made careful study of Fela's band and Allen's drumming in particular, as did Ginger Baker, another disciple).
Allen stayed with Kuti for close on 15 years, from 1964-1979/80 (it wasn't an overnight parting of the ways). He played on all Afrika 70's albums up until 'V.I.P. - Vagabonds In Power' (after which the band briefly dissolved, before Kuti formed Egypt 80). These include the classic mid-decade stream of discs documenting the post-colonial iniquities of Nigerian society and Kuti's (and Afrika 70's) increasingly bloody conflicts with the authorities - among them 'Alagbon Close', 'Everything Scatter', 'Expensive Shit', 'Yellow Fever', 'Zombie', 'Kalakuta Show', 'Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana', 'Sorrow Tears And Blood' and 'Fear Not For Man'. The band enjoyed massive popularity in Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa, but (at home) were subject to constant harassment, and at times brutal physical attacks, from the army and the police.
In 1975, Allen recorded his debut album, 'Jealousy', the first of three made with Afrika 70 and produced by Kuti. 'Progress' followed in 1976, 'No Accommodation For Lagos' in 1978. But by 1978 he was ready for a change of scene, and a year later he parted company with Kuti. The touring entourage had grown to outlandish proportions and there was talk of him not getting due respect or recompense for the contribution he had made to the creation of Afrobeat and the success of Afrika 70. "It's not a big story," says Allen today. "I was tired, I'd just had enough." His final studio collaboration with Kuti was on an album made with American vibraphonist Roy Ayers, 'Africa Centre Of The World' (released in 1981). In 1979 he formed his own band, Tony Allen and the Afro Messengers, and recorded his first album away from Kuti, 'No Discrimination'.
"Lagos was too small for me and Fela. It was a small place, and I wanted room to take off without causing competition," says Allen. "I eventually chose Paris partly because the British immigration people were giving me difficulties, but also because African music was more happening then in Paris than in London, and my record company (Barclay) was in France. It was the only place I felt I could exercise my knowledge and make a living." Soon after arriving in Paris, he recorded an album with producer Martin Meissonnier, but, amid talk of unsatisfactory mixes, it remains unreleased.
Throughout the 1990s Allen was a sought after session drummer and he collaborated with a range of artists including Randy Weston, Groove Armada, Air, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Manu Dibango and Grace Jones. During the years since Fela's death in 1997 Allen has become recognised as Afrobeat's torch bearer and he is held in reverence by musicians and fans alike. Recently the style has seen an upsurge of interest outside of Nigeria with dedicated clubs opening up in Europe and the USA and groups such as Antibalas and Masters At Work bringing the music to a new public. Allen's albums have become more frequent. 'Black Voices' was released in 1999, followed by 'Home Cooking', 'Tony Allen Live', 'Lagos No Shaking' and now, in 2009, the definitively tough and rocking 'Secret Agent'.
"Music is my mission," says Allen. "I never get satisfied and I'm still learning from others. The musical world is very spiritual, and I don't think there's an end to it. As musicians, it's our mission to keep going."