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A caress rather than a beating: The science behind Tony Allen’s style

A caress rather than a beating is how Afrobeat cofounder Tony Allen used to refer to his drumming style. While Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Allen’s musical partner of about 15 years, was always keen to ring the alarm politically, Allen’s approach was quieter both on the drum skins and beyond. In song, as he would eventually do so when he split from Fela in the late 1970s, he would speak mostly with his hands, sometimes lending his deep baritone (in sung and spoken form) to songs that were less politically strident but always socially conscious.

Although the softly-spoken Allen seemed reticent beyond the drum kit, over the course of over 30 albums as a member of the Koola Lobitos and Afrika 70 (Fela’s bands in the 1960s and 1970s), he was the glue holding the sound together. This was evident not so much in the often-related tale of how Fela needed however many drummers to replace Allen, but more in how Fela had to rethink the template of Afrika 70’s sound once Allen left

“Fela used to write out the parts for all the musicians in the band, but I was the only one who originated the music I played,” he told The Independent in 2008.

 Afrobeat coalesced into a sound after the Koola Lobitos were interned in the United States for several months after some financial setbacks during a tour. Black Power had usurped the megaphone in the civil rights movement and James Brown’s declamatory statements and thick grooves ran the clubs and the charts. In Nigeria, too, Brown’s brand of soul music was the rage, forcing the highlife jazz-playing Koola Lobitos to come up with something more relatable.

“You cannot imagine how many bands in Africa were playing exactly like James Brown,” said Allen to “They copied him to the core.” But the copying went both ways, with the likes of Bootsy Collins (who was in Brown’s band at the time), noting down some of Allen’s patterns when Brown came to Nigeria in late 1970.

With the Koola Lobitos’ experimental jazz sound a little too highbrow for Nigerian audiences, Allen and Fela set on a course to simplify it into a groove-based style that was  a fusion of Yorùbá rhythms, highlife, jazz, funk and soul. In the interview, the drummer describes it as “a package of something that was not there before”. Albums showcasing this new bag, such as Shakara, Roforofo Fight, Gentleman, Confusion, Water No Get Enemy, Zombie, No Agreement, Sorrow Tears and Blood, came in quick succession, in a period in which Fela grew into an international icon as well as persona non grata in the eyes of the Nigerian government

Fela and Allen parted ways at the end of the 1970s after a stretch of years in which Allen described life with Fela as being close to a war zone, considering the violence visited on Fela by Olusegun Obasanjo’s army.

Life as part of Fela’s entourage also meant sometimes forgoing payment, which led to tensions between the two. “I never used to agitate for things,” Allen says in the documentary Finding Fela. “Me, I’m Tony Allen, I just want to be playing my fucking drums. Tripping with the music. But as the band leader, I had to talk for the guys, and this is after months and months and months of not being paid.”

 In Finding Fela, saxophone player, music scholar and one-time Egypt 80 member Michael Veal describes the music of Afrika 70 as “more circular … funkier in a way”, guided as it was by Allen’s light, polyrhythmic touch, which drew from various places, including the versatility demanded of drummers in the Lagos club scene.. Many have argued that this was the zenith of Fela’s sound, compared with the Egypt 80 period, which was, in the words of Veal “still polyrhythmic” but with more of a linear chug. 

In interviews, discussing his style’s finer points, Tony Allen could be opaque, often dropping clues to its antecedents but never quite giving a round picture. He has credited elements of  his trademark softness to the advice of the nimble but little-known jazz drummer, Frank Butler, who advised him to practise his stroke on four pillows when the two met in the US on a Koola Lobitos tour. Art Blakey’s elegant sense of propulsion is part of Allen’s style too, as is Max Roach, whose flow and inventive use of the hi-hat are imprinted on Allen’s approach. Somewhere in there, also, is Elvin Jones’s sense of orchestration.

Yet another noteworthy influence on Allen is Gene Kupra, who has described “independence” as a cornerstone of his own style, or more precisely “the ability to move this hand against this hand and this foot against that foot”. Although these players’ styles are varied, what they have in common is that their raw power came from a sense of control, a sense that seemed to enhance Allen’s capacity for flexibility.

  Although Allen would stay active in the 1980s, moving to Europe and recording with the likes of Manu Dibango and Ray Lema, his real resurgence arrived with the Black Voices album in the late 1990s, a fusion of electronica, funk and Afrobeat, including the likes of Gary “Mudbone” Cooper and Mike “Clip” Payne.

Over the past two decades, Allen has recorded more than a dozen albums, many of them under his name, some of them in groups including Rocket Juice and the Moon and  The Good, The Bad and The Queen.

A futurist at heart, one who was cognisant of the infinite currency of his inventiveness behind the drums, there is hardly a combination that Allen did not explore, be it with acoustic instruments or electronic ones. He also explored his jazz roots, recording two jazz albums with Blue Note, namely Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and The Source. This year, on World Circuit, he released Rejoice, his combination with Hugh Masekela based on studio sessions from a decade ago. Another outstanding recent gem is Tomorrow the Harvest Comes, a four-song 10-inch pressing with Detroit techno producer Jeff Mills that mixes Allen’s drumming with Afrobeat-like organs and Roland TR-909 programming.

In a sense, Allen was the torchbearer of Afrobeat into the electronic music realm, cementing its space in the  diasporic conversation conveyed through beats and time signatures. As Comet Records’ Manu Boubli says in the Black Voices documentary, “After Fela’s death was the right time [for Allen’s resurgence] because some of the guys in the New York electronic scene and house music scene got into Afrobeat because they realised that the complexity of the beats was very similar to what they wanted to do with electronics.” 

In his own unassuming way, Allen altered the course of contemporary dance music, saving many of us from a night of boring beats on the floor.

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

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