You can subscribe for $5/month and receive this weekly newsletter: SUBSCRIBE NOW
For the May 3 newsletter, Shadowproof managing editor Kevin Gosztola paid tribute to Nigerian drummer Tony Allen.
Tony Allen developed a signature way of playing the drums, including polyrhythms, that defined some of the most revolutionary music ever produced. And right up until his death at the age of 79, he experimented with styles and collaborated with various artists on albums.
On April 30, the Nigerian drummer died in Paris after suffering an aortic aneurysm. He was most known for his collaboration with Fela Kuti, leader of the Afrika ’70 band. Their music challenged rampant political corruption in Nigeria, as well as Western colonialism.
“Afrobeat has different varieties of rhythm,” Allen said in 2017, while describing how he created rhythms. “Maybe because I’m in control of that, I don’t know how to stop inventing different beats because when I’m bored with the patterns of the beat, I need to create another one.”
Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and other jazz drummers inspired Allen to find a new way of playing drums that incorporated hi-hats.
“I had to practice, to adapt this movement of the hi-hat plus what we were doing before, and that changed my movement, my way of playing, directly, you know? Every drummer in the country at that time…when I was playing in the local highlife band, they would come to watch, asking me, ‘What [are you] doing? What is that?’” recalled Allen. “Just because I had added hi-hats to the sound. It made a big difference for the other drummers, because they never did it, until I tried it.”
Allen added, “I didn’t want to play like others. I just wanted to make sure I used this instrument the way it was put in front of me. Meaning that it’s four limbs: you have to use your four limbs. Which was very rare for the other drummers to use their four limbs. Maximum was three.”
By using all four limbs, Allen was able to give the revolutionary music of Fela the dynamism and energy that made it impactful.
“Confusion” drew people’s attention to Allen’s drumming, as the band performed it in 1974, and it dealt with the impact of colonialism on working people (at the time, Nigeria did not have a single currency):
Dem be three men wey sell for roadside-o
Dem three speak different language-o
Dem speak Lagos, Accra, and Conakry
One white man come pay them money-o
He pay them for pounds, dollars and French money-o
For the thing wey he go buy from them
He remain for them to share am-o
Me I say, na confusion be that-o
He go say he pafuka o
Directed at Nigerian elites, “Colonial Mentality” said living with a colonial mindset is slavery. Allen gave the beat a triple-kick-drum pattern. “We were playing that one around 1976. I really liked that one because Fela’s composition was so nice that it made me flow.”
As Randall F. Grass wrote in 1986, Fela’s disrespect of the “powers-that-be” in Nigeria escalated into violence, especially after his album, “Zombie,” in 1976, which called out the Nigerian military.
Kalakuta Republic, the zone where his “communal household” lived, was attacked by the military in 1977.
“One of Fela’s boys clashed with soldiers and fled to the Kalakuta compound. Soldiers surrounded the house, demanding that Fela hand over the man. When he refused, the soldiers charged, and Fela charged the electrified fence encircling the compound. But the power supply was cut off and soldiers poured onto the ground,” Grass recounted.
“Fela and his extended family were beaten; many of the women were raped,” Grass added. “Musical equipment, master tapes, and films were destroyed; finally, the house was set afire, and Fela was temporarily imprisoned.”
This sort of violence, and threats that would persist so long as Fela called out corrupt politicians by name, led Allen to leave Nigeria for Paris. But he did not change his views on greed and power.
In 2016, Allen told the Guardian, “If you check most of [Fela’s] lyrics that he sang in the 70s and 80s, that is what is happening right now. War everywhere. And because of what? Power. And power that is lopsided.”
“There is no leader in Africa, only president, there for himself. Not for the people. That is what [Fela] sang that and that is still the case. Europe has their own style of manipulating the people but it’s not like [in Africa]. We have the junglish way of manipulating. Very junglish, you know? Like in a jungle. That’s what we have,” Allen suggested.
“No Accommodation For Lagos” was released in 1978, around the time that he was ready to leave Fela. The album talked about “slum clearances, clearing them out and bulldozing their houses without offering alternative housing.”
“You used to see many people sleeping underneath the bridge. People thought because I was talking about corruption that the police would come for me but they never did,” Allen shared. “I never mentioned anyone’s name individually. I accused all of them.”
Later in the 2000s and 2010s, Allen collaborated with Damon Albarn and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Allen, Albarn, Paul Simonen, bassist for The Clash, and Simon Tong, guitarist and keyboardist for The Verve, formed a supergroup called The Good, the Bad, & The Queen. Their debut album was released in 2007. It featured several tracks with socially conscious lyrics that dealt with life in the United Kingdom during the Iraq War.
The supergroup’s follow-up album, “Merrie Land,” which was released in 2017, confronted the fallout from Brexit and the right-wing existential crisis that British people feel they are having, which has fueled opposition to immigration.
Allen’s 2014 album “Film of Life” included a song called “Go Back” that Albarn wrote and recorded with him. It showed solidarity with refugees who left Libya and wound up in a shipwreck near the Italian island of Lampedusa.
“There are many places I can take my drumming, and I try to make my drums sing and turn them into an orchestra,” Allen shared. “I don’t bash my drums. Instead of bashing, I caress. If you caress your wife, you’ll get good things from your wife; if you beat her up, I’m sure she’ll be your enemy.”
“I’m creating different patterns with my four limbs. They are all playing something different, which means you need to split your mind into four elements with the one central idea running through.”
Some drummers spend their whole life trying to perfect the rhythms they can play with two of their limbs. Allen mastered the art of drumming with four limbs and created music that pulsed with controlled energy—enhancing the grit and power of any lyrics written for justice and liberation.
Listen to “Colonial Mentality” by Fela Kuti & the Afrika 70 (with Tony Allen on the drums):