Legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Oladipo Allen, who died in Paris, France, on April 30, aged 79, was in a class of his own. Not for nothing was he described as “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived.”
His mastery of the drum set was phenomenal, and borne out by the fact that he helped to create Afrobeat music.
Indeed, Afrobeat king Fela Kuti, with whose Africa ’70 band Allen recorded more than 30 albums, famously said, “Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.” Allen was the drummer and musical director of the band from 1968 to 1979.
According to Allen, “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… the patterns don’t just come from Yoruba… but other parts of Nigeria and Africa.”
This eclectic fusion of rhythms, which characterised Afrobeat, defined Allen’s technique, which was influenced by Juju, Highlife and American jazz.
When Allen left the band, after reported disagreements with Fela over royalties and pay, the band needed four drummers to replace the master drummer.
While working under Fela, Allen had released three solo recordings, ‘Jealousy’ (1975), ‘Progress’ (1977) and ‘No Accommodation for Lagos’ (1979), which showed other sides of him as a composer and songwriter.
Allen formed his own group, and recorded ‘No Discrimination’ in 1980. His career move to London in 1984, and later Paris, demonstrated his self-belief. He recorded ‘Never Expect Power Always’ (aka N.E.P.A.) in 1985.
It is a measure of his talent that, after his time with Fela, he created Afrofunk, a synthesis of Afrobeat, electronica, dub, R&B, and rap.
In his musically active years, spanning more than 50 years, he collaborated with various internationally known groups and artistes, and influenced artistes across a number of genres.
“He was forever learning, forging new musical relationships and evolving his sound,” said afrobeat aficionado Will Ross.
As the inventor of rhythms that energised Afrobeat, Allen demonstrated his intimate connection with the genre by returning to it after his experimentation with other hybrids. His 13th release in June 2006, ‘Lagos No Shaking’, was recorded live in Lagos, with a full-sized Afrobeat band.
Allen was born in Lagos, and taught himself how to play drums at the age of 18. He mastered drumming and kept drumming till he passed on. This year, he featured on the Gorrilaz track ‘How Far?’
Before his defining period with Fela, he had played with Victor Olaiya’s highlife band, the Cool Cats, and later with Agu Norris and the Heatwaves, the Nigerian Messengers, and the Melody Makers.
He had joined Fela’s Koola Lobitos highlife-jazz band as an original member in 1964 after an audition. “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?” Fela was said to have observed after listening to Allen’s unique drumming.
In 1969, when Fela introduced a new African groove, Allen was the man who “put the beat in Afrobeat.” His 2013 autobiography ‘Tony Allen: Master Drummer of Afrobeat’, co-written with author and musician Michael E. Veal, is a testimony to his sense of history.
Allen’s cultural significance was the point of the documentary ‘Birth of Afrobeat’ released in 2019 by filmmaker Opiyo Okeyo.
Not only was the film screened at the American Black Film Festival, it won the 21st Century Fox Global Inclusion Award for Emerging Voices at the Black Star Film Festival.
‘Birth of Afrobeat’ was acquired by American Public Television and premiered in January on Public Broadcasting Service.
Allen’s magical drumbeats are the stuff of immortality. He was quoted as saying: “There’s no end. I’m very sure of that.”