The pulsating Yoruban derived rhythms that are so seductive and foundational in Afrobeat can be reduced to the work of one man, Tony Allen. Allen was self-taught, practicing his chops while working as an engineer at a local Lagos radio station when he was only 18. He caught his first break playing claves for the highlife band “The Cool Cats” headed by ‘Sir’ Victor Olaiya, the catalyst that brought him into the nucleus of the Nigerian music circuit where he later met his partner and bandleader from 1964-1979, Fela Kuti.

Courtesy of Strut Records

Allen, like Kuti, was a product of Yoruban culture, a student of a Western Colonial influence, and a child conceived in the tension between European colonialism and African independence, a crack in the earth that spawned the moment of creativity that conceived Afrobeat and allowed it to flourish during the most politically tense environs.

Another great similarity between Allen and Kuti, was their affection for American jazz. Allen studied the works of Max Roach, Ghanaian highlife drummer Kofi Ghanaba, and Art Blakey, particularly drawn to Max Roach’s use of the hi-hat—a necessary ingredient in jazz that had never been truly utilized in African music—and began incorporating it into his own signature sound. The result was a hybrid of a highly polyrhythmic understanding of drumming from African folk rhythms and popular West African genres like highlife and juju, married with a very authentically American jazz vernacular, and the growingly popular funk aesthetic by pioneers like James Brown.

When Kuti and Allen met again through their intermingling within the same Nigerian music circle, Kuti remarked “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this—jazz and highlife?” A serendipitous pairing took place, as Kuti’s (highlife and jazz) band, the “Koola Lobitos” sought Allen as an original band member.

Koola Lobitos – VC7

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Kuti’s formidable trip to the United States set fuel to his political fire. Kuti was captivated by various fragments of Black Nationalism resulting from his relationship to Sandra Smith, a Black Panther, who first introduced him to the Black Power ideology through the works of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and others. He came back to Lagos applying his learnings into the African context. With a newfound affinity towards Pan Africanism and an urgent need to infuse it into his music, Kuti changed his band name to The African ’70 as a declaration of his alignment with a continental Liberation movement, and dissent against European imperialism. With a new political consciousness, he needed a sound that would speak it justice, and there arose Kuti as the voice, and Allen as the heartbeat. What Kuti said in words, Allen said through the majestic agility of his four limbs, bearing the ability to play all separate time signatures at once, often giving the illusion of multiple drummers playing simultaneously, a feat that only someone with a profound fluency in the spiritual language of rhythms can achieve.

Roforofo Fight – Fela Ransome Kuti (1972)

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Allen’s tenure with Kuti was a crucial one for the evolution of contemporary African music, and for drawing the bridge between two very disparate worlds musically, culturally, and politically. Allen served as Kuti’s musical director and was the only member of the Africa ’70 who had real creative autonomy. Despite a musical love affair at first, Allen eventually left Kuti and Africa ’70 in 1979 to further pursue his own music (he had recorded 3 solo albums while still Africa ’70 that Kuti supported). Allen was discontent with the unrelenting nature of Kuti towards his band members and was further disillusioned with Kuti’s rather undemocratic handlings of the band as he claimed the majority royalties and credit sought from their recordings. Nonetheless the 30 of Kuti’s albums that Allen recorded on are still remembered as the best from Kuti’s career, surely no coincidence to anyone who understands the impact of Allen to the Afrobeat genre at large. Despite his departure, Kuti would still attribute the joint creation of Afrobeat to both himself and to Allen.

Tοny Allen & The Afro Messengers – Ariya

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Today—Allen, now in his 70s—is still known as one of the best drummers of all time. The title is attributed to not only his stellar musicianship, but also to his imaginative and forward thinking mind as an inventor of music, and as a successful bandleader.

Soon after his departure from the Africa ’70, Allen recorded a few albums in Nigeria before relocating first to London, and soon after to Paris, where he has lived for the past 20+ years. Allen’s exposure to a new environment allowed his work to rapidly flourish and evolve, expanding genres even further to include the influences of dub reggae, hip-hop, indie-rock, and electronica into a new genre that he coined as “Afrofunk”. His music is as politically relevant as ever, and his ear has matured to adapt to the nuances of a new world music landscape decades after his work with Kuti.

Tony Allen – Losun

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Allen’s musical anthology is unbelievably vast. After his work with Kuti, he assembled his own group called the Afro Messengers, ventured into his own creation of Afrofunk thereafter, he recorded in Lagos an album compiling the sounds and influences of intergenerational Lagos bred musicians in 2006 entitled Lagos No Shaking, and recently released a richly experimental album Inspiration Information with the Finnish musician Jimi Tenor in 2009. Perhaps one of his most provocative recordings since his tenure with Fela Kuti was with Damon Albarn (of the band Blur) in The Good, The Bad & the Queen, the debut album was critically acclaimed as one of the best rock recordings of 2007.

The Good The Bad And The Queen – Kingdom Of Doom

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Allen’s musical tenacity has outlived many genres of music. He has had a career spanning over close to 5 decades, beyond various geographical borders, and many cultural movements. Allen continues to push the envelop while upholding what he believes to be the only real ingredient to Afrobeat—the rhythm. No matter what the project, the collaborators, the influences—so long as Allen holds down the rhythm—the end product will be celebrated as a continuation of the Afrobeat genre that he helped create almost 50 years ago.

Jimi Tenor / Tony Allen Inspiration Information 4 Interview

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Words by Boyuan Gao

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