Tony Allen, one of the pioneers of afrobeat genre, aptly described as the “greatest drummer ever lived” has died aged 79 in France.
Alongside Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Allen revolutionized Nigeria’s music landscape, incorporating elements of African music and jazz, soul, and funk.
Together the pair recorded more than 30 albums with Allen doubling as Fela’s drummer and music director
Unsurprisingly, Fela once stated that, “Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat”. English musician Brian Eno echoed that sentiment, describing him as “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived”.
A self-taught musician, Allen began playing the drum kit at the age of 18 while working as an engineer for a Nigerian radio station.
Influenced by the music his father listened to, including juju and also American jazz, and the growing highlife scene in Nigeria and Ghana, Tony 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 and he was able to fill the drum set chair when the former Cool Cats drummer left the band. He later played with Agu Norris and the Heatwaves, the Nigerian Messengers, and the Melody Makers.
In 1964, Fela Kuti invited Allen to audition for a jazz-highlife band he was forming as they had played together as sidemen in the Lagos circuit. Allen became an original member of Fela’s ‘Koola Lobitos’ highlife-jazz band.
In 1969, following a turbulent and educational trip to the United States, Fela and the newly renamed ‘Africa ‘70’ band 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.
In 1979, Allen chose to leave ‘Africa ‘70’ once again in “search of his own sound.” He formed his own group, recording No Discrimination in 1980, and performing in Lagos until emigrating to London in 1984, then later moving to Paris.
Tony has played with numerous local and international artistes to critical world acclaim. Chief Executive Officer, Inspiro Productions and founder/organiser of Lagos International Jazz Festival, Mr. Ayoola Sadare, said, “ His impact on Afrobeat, Jazz and World music is undeniable. In Europe and on the global music scene, highly recognized and respected for his contributions to music generally.
“Allen was a worthy cultural ambassador of Nigerian-African music, he was part of birthing Afrobeat which is making waves globally and the many fusions it has created and interest it continues to generate.
“Afrobeat has given Nigerian music an identity that has moved it from the general world music category to being in a genre of its own like reggae and others. Allen, playing and collaborating alongside Fela Kuti, ensured and shaped the genre of music.”
Born in 1940, Allen would have clocked 80 in August.