Tony Allen: Beast of no nation

Herculean, the first single from the yet-to-be-named group featuring Fela Kuti’s former drummer Tony Allen, Damon Albarn (Blur/Gorillaz), Paul Simonon (The Clash) and Simon Tong (The Verve), is an Orwellian take on the general state of the world, using a reimagined, post-apocalyptic West London as its muse.

The song, complete with pained imagery of dark canals, gas works, ghosts and medicine men, is orchestral in its dystopian sweep. Add Danger Mouse’s midas touch to its edges, and the tune takes on a devilish grin charged with static electricity.

Somewhere in the dark recesses of the mix is Allen, anchoring the design with a feathery drum’n’bass-like strut.

Having always spoken with his hands since he and Fela laid down the blueprint for Afrobeat in the Sixties, he is suitably incoherent and nonchalant as he answers questions via the phone from his home in Paris, where he has lived for more than 20 years.
“I wouldn’t know [about the song’s meaning],” he declares in an impenetrable Nigerian accent.

“It’s more British than African. I don’t have too much insight on the story of England, but it is to do with all that is happening. Damon is just trying to express his own views.” 

The Good, The Bad and the Queen, an album born out of sweaty studio sessions in Nigeria’s Aphrodisia Studios about two years ago, and subsequent ones in London, is due out early next year. “I’m doing collaborations with people who do music that doesn’t sound like mine,” says Allen of his alliances that have included people such as Albarn and other young musicians such as rapper Ty.

“I live in Europe, you know, I need to progress all the time. I can’t be stagnant. I always want to attack something that’s not been done. I’m coming up with different patterns all the time.”

While Allen, in a manner akin to Herbie Hancock, has always embraced new directions in music, casting the seed of Afrobeat as widely as possible and helping it mutate, his latest album Lagos No Shaking reconstructs his patented style as opposed to his various exercises in deconstruction. “I wanted to go back to my roots, you know, so it sounds rootsy a bit,” he says matter-of-factly. “After doing so many things in Europe, having tried so many things … when you lose your identity, it’s very bad. I decided not to use too much production. I wanted a clean album, not many effects, just live.”

Recorded in Lagos over a period of 25 days, this album sees Allen return to his roots with juju-laced Afrobeat. It is reminiscent of vintage Allen albums such as Jealousy and Progress, which were recorded in the late Seventies with Fela’s band Afrika 70, minus the lengthy warbling.

Opting for the no-frills approach, Allen produces watertight arrangements with a contemporary twist, as evidenced by the rapping in Moyege.

Still, whatever Allen decides to do musically, Afrobeat has morphed into a beast of no nation, with many of its exponents—mostly from the new school funk and hip-hop sets—hailing far from its cradle. “It’s my happiness to see young people playing Afrobeat,” says Allen. “If they’re not playing like me, it doesn’t matter. I’ve tried to make many drummers play like me—it’s impossible. Some cannot find a good pattern but somehow … it’s still Afrobeat.”

From Lagos to Paris to Ann Arbor

Afrobeat from Michigan? Crazy as it may seem, it is a symptom of an increasingly globalised world, where great music is just that, great music, whether it was birthed in Lagos or Ann Arbor.

Meet Nomo, an eight-piece collective of jazz aficionados, who are hung up on creating music to uplift people. “Nomo is music that dispels bad spirits,” says bandleader Elliot Bergman. “I want it to be ecstatic and joyous and raucous and funky.

“I was immediately smitten with the music of Fela Kuti,” says Bergman. “I think that the rhythmic drive of Tony Allen’s drumming is so infectious. The groove feels so good that you could be happy listening to the drummer and the guitar player for hours on end. When you throw the horns and vocals into the mix, it’s icing on the cake.

“Afrobeat is some of my favourite music, but I don’t have an agenda as far as that goes, and we are certainly not traditionalists. I don’t think we are carrying on anyone’s legacy,” he says.

One listen to their new album New Tones (Ubiquity) and it’s easy to see where Bergman is coming from; this is music that is rooted in Fela’s Afrobeat, but owes much to the jazz of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, the funk of the Talking Heads and the dub of King Tubby.

Funky-as-hell basslines and wall-of-sound percussion are the driving force, while horn stabs and warm electric keyboards punctuate the monumental grooves.

An ever-evolving line-up of more than 79 incredibly talented musicians has helped to develop the sound of the band. Bergman says the band started out three years ago as a loose collective of friends and housemates and only in the last year has it solidified into a consistent eight-piece.

“Most of the players in the band come from a jazz background, which in itself can mean so many different things. We have people that play in Dixieland bands, bebop quartets, free jazz ensembles and everything in-between,” says Bergmann.

“Nomo is a group that challenges us in different ways. You have to be pretty selfless to play in this band, because your individual voice has to be subservient to the group sound,” he says.

And what a sound it is. Old fans of Afrobeat will not be disappointed, while Nomo’s take on the genre should open a legion of new fans to the wonders of some of the best music the world has ever shaken its ass to. — Lloyd Gedye

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Marcia Mayaba —Driven to open doors for women

Marcia Mayaba has been in the motor industry for 24 years, donning hats that include receptionist, driver, fuel attendant, dealer principal and now chief...

The war on women in video game culture

Women and girls make up almost half of the gaming community but are hardly represented and face abuse in the industry

More top stories

First sanitary pad vending machine in Africa aims to end...

A new invention by the MENstruation Foundation addresses the difficulty many schoolgirls face every month — not being able to afford sanitary products

A new era of vaccine sovereignty in Africa beckons

COMMENT: The AU has laid out a clear path for the continent to produce its own vaccines

Hlophe cries ‘politics’ as he contests the misconduct finding against...

The Western Cape judge president has rejected the report by a judicial tribunal that lays the groundwork for his impeachment

Insecurity and Covid-19: Threats to electoral democracy in Africa

Restrictions to battle the pandemic offer ideal cover for authoritarian regimes to undermine and clamp down on opposition parties

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…