by Ian Mann
May 04, 2020
Political & cultural journalist Stefan Simanowitz has given us permission to publish the text of his 2010 interview with Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, which took place on the drummer's 70th birthday.
R.I.P. TONY ALLEN.
All at the Jazzmann were saddened to learn of the recent death of the Nigerian born drummer Tony Allen (1940-2020), one of the founding fathers of Afrobeat. Sources indicate that the seventy nine year old died from a heart attack, but that his death was not linked to Covid-19.
We are grateful to the political and cultural journalist Stefan Simanowitz for contacting us and giving us his permission to publish the text of an interview he conducted with Tony Allen in 2010 under the title “The Beat at the Heart of Popular Music”. Stefan’s article is reproduced below;
THE BEAT AT THE HEART OF POPULAR MUSIC
Almost ten years ago Stefan Simanowitz interviewed Tony Allen, who with Fela Kuti, created Afrobeat and changed the musical landscape for ever.
The interview took place at the Barbican Centre in London on 6th October 2010, on the occasion of Allen’s 70th birthday.
“You need to do your passion,” legendary drummer and songwriter Tony Allen told me clenching his fist against his heart. “If I was just playing for money I would have stopped playing years ago.” Then aged 70 Allen, who together with Fela Kuti, was credited with “inventing” Afrobeat, had lost none of that passion.
Although always interested in music it was only aged 18, whilst working as radio technician in Lagos, that Tony Oladipo Allen started playing the drums. He bought himself a drum kit and taught himself to play picking out different rhythms from Juju (traditional Yoruba ceremonial music), American jazz and bebop as well as highlife, a musical style popular at the time in Nigeria and Ghana.
In 1964, aged 24, Allen met Fela Kuti who invited him to audition for his new jazz-highlife band Koola Lobitos. So began a musical relationship that was to last over three decades and produce some of Africa’s most influential music. Together Kuti and Allen recorded over 30 albums and pioneered a new type of sound: Afrobeat.
Afrobeat combined jazz and funk with traditional African rhythms blending a heavy soul grooves with the rhythms of Yoruba music. In 1969, Kuti took the band to America and whilst there they met members of the Black Panthers and were exposed to the politics of the Black Power movement. This experience was to have a significant impact on the band members personally, politically and musically.
On their return to Nigeria, Kuti renamed the band Africa 70 and their sound became more militant with their lyrics reflecting social and political issues. This explosive new sound - the music of the shanty towns of West Africa - would go on to have a massive global influence. Indeed, Afrobeat inspired the likes of Brian Eno and many other electronic and disco pioneers and is regarded as a key foundation of dance music and hip hop.
Allen and Kuti would write together, Allen laying down the rhythms over which Kuti would play. “Fela used to write the parts for the other musicians in the band,” Allen told me. “I was the only one who actually originated the music I played.”
However, whilst Kuti was to become a household name, being a drummer meant that Allen never attracted the same amount of recognition. In the late 1970’s he decided to leave Fela’s band. He formed his own group, performing in Lagos until emigrating to London in 1984 and then moving to Paris where he collaborated with many top musicians including Manu Dibango, Ray Lema and Roy Ayers. He developed his own hybrid sound, a mix of Afrobeat, electronica, dub, R&B and rap, which he calls afrofunk.
Although he based himself in Paris for more than two decades, Allen would return often to Lagos. “I always go back to Nigeria.” he told me, “It’s my home.”
In his later years, one of his passions was unearthing and encouraging young musical talent in Nigeria. He admitted to me that he found the attitude of some young musicians frustrating. “They like to play hip hop and are always looking for the fastest way to make money” he shrugged. “For me it was always about the music, never about money.”
When Kuti died in 1997, it seemed as though Afrobeat might die with him but Tony Allen continued to pioneer Afrobeat into the new millennium. Even in his 70s Allen showed little sign of slowing down. He produced several five albums in the turn of the century and remained at music’s cutting edge working with electronic producers like Funky Lowlives and Dr L in the 90s, with Sebastian Tellier on the classic ‘La Ritournelle’, and with Damon Albarn in The Good The Bad & The Queen. Lyrically his songs retained the social consciousness that he discovered in the 1970’s and his lyrics are rich in metaphor often touching on issues of corruption and oppression.
Fela Kuti once said, “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat” and without Afrobeat much of the music we all listen to today might have never come about. Allen might not have gained the fame or fortune but his passion for performing and innovating remained undiminished. “I’m never going to stop making music,” he told me. “Even if I had to crawl across the floor to put my ass on the chair by my drums, I’d be crawling.”
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