Tony Allen – An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat by Michael E. Veal (Part 2)


Fela Kuti’s High-life Jazz Band

“…Tony Allen was at the epicenter of Fela’s music, from their mutual fascination with straight-ahead jazz in the early 1960s, through the swinging, good-time days of dance-band highlife in post-independence Ghana and Nigeria at mid-decade, through the funk and Black Power epiphanies in Los Angeles at decade’s end, to Fela’s countercultural “Kalakuta Republic” in 1970s, and on into the early years of African music’s global presence in the “world beat” market of 1980s and 1990s. Their story began as one of friendship and collaboration, and later degenerated through a series of misunderstandings that provided yet another vivid example of the destructive impact of fame and the sobering effects of personal tragedy.

In terms of social background, Tony Allen was neither a poor Lagosian nor a member of the educated elite, but a member of the Lagos Island middle class. As such, he would have reasonably expected that Fela, from the highly respected Ransome-Kuti family, would act in accordance with the traditional Yoruba ideal of the gbajumon- the “big man” of wealth and achievement who consolidates his social status by redistributing his largesse among those in his social network who have shown him dedication and loyalty. But the world of Fela Kuti -especially as it increasingly became his own highly idiosyncratic creation -was not a world particularly steeped in tradition. It was the world of an African pop star whose entire engagement with the world was predicated on rebellion and the flouting of convention.

The hazier things got in the course of Fela’s growing fame, the easier it was for more fundamental and reasonable considerations to slide. In this sense, Allen was not alone in feeling underacknowledged and undercompensated. What remains in the end, however, is a moving story of two musicians forever linked -despite it all- because of the brilliant music they created together. In the long run, I believe historical accounts will list as one of their most significant achievements the creation of a “national” style. Despite the scores of innovative musicians in their country, it is Afrobeat that has gradually become recognized as the sonic signature of “Nigeria” in the global sphere, much like the role of reggae in Jamaica, calypso and soca in Trinidad, and mbaqanga and isicathamiya in South Africa.

It is also notable that, aside from Fela’s musician sons Femi and Seun, Tony Allen is the only member of Fela’s entourage to make a substantial name for himself outside Fela’s context. Despite the magnetic pull Fela clearly had on many people (including many musicians who stayed with him for decades), Tony Allen alone seems to have possessed the clarity, inner strength, and ingenuity to reinvent himself and create a new and succesfull life for himself away from the brilliance and madness of Fela’s world and of Nigeria.

Tony Allen left Nigeria at a time when a sharp rise in violent crime, a succession of military dictatorships, as austere economic climate, and a  culture of corruption had choked much of the life force out of the local music industry. He succesfully established a life for himselfin Paris during a period which -although conditions relatively favorable for African popular musicians- it was extremely difficult for Africans in general to do so because of a sharply rising tide of anti-immigrant hostility.

He could easily have built a prosperous career for himself by playing Fela’s classic songs- songs that Fela himself resolutely refused to perform once had recorded them -for nostalgic Nigerian expatriates ans curious Europeans and Americans. He chose instead to carve out his own identity within the Afrobeat genre and to build his own audience from the ground up. Tony’s early solo years were marked by notable collaborations with other Afropop innovators, such as Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade and Zaire’s Ray Lema, and since the 1980s he has released a score of well-received albums of his own material, while fruitfullyinterfacing with a varety of currents in jazz, electronica, experimental music, British pop, and hip-hop. Now a dual Nigerian and French citizen, he lives in the suburbs of Paris with his wife and their three sons, enjoying a stabilitiy that is highly uncommon among immigrant African musicians in Europe…)

It is also notable that, aside from Fela’s musician sons Femi and Seun, Tony Allen is the only member of Fela’s entourage to make a substantial name for himself outside Fela’s context. Despite the magnetic pull Fela clearly had on many people (including many musicians who stayed with him for decades), Tony Allen alone seems to have possessed the clarity, inner strength, and ingenuity to reinvent himself and create a new and succesfull life for himself away from the brilliance and madness of Fela’s world and of Nigeria.

Tony Allen left Nigeria at a time when a sharp rise in violent crime, a succession of military dictatorships, as austere economic climate, and a culture of corruption had choked much of the life force out of the local music industry. He succesfully established a life for himselfin Paris during a period which – although conditions relatively favorable for African popular musicians- it was extremely difficult for Africans in general to do so because of a sharply rising tide of anti-immigrant hostility.

He could easily have built a prosperous career for himself by playing Fela’s classic songs- songs that Fela himself resolutely refused to perform once had recorded them -for nostalgic Nigerian expatriates ans curious Europeans and Americans. He chose instead to carve out his own identity within the Afrobeat genre and to build his own audience from the ground up. Tony’s early solo years were marked by notable collaborations with other Afropop innovators, such as Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade and Zaire’s Ray Lema, and since the 1980s he has released a score of well-received albums of his own material, while fruitfullyinterfacing with a varety of currents in jazz, electronica, experimental music, British pop, and hip-hop.

Now a dual Nigerian and French citizen, he lives in the suburbs of Paris with his wife and their three sons, enjoying a stabilitiy that is highly uncommon among immigrant African musicians in Europe…
…But the overall tone here is fairly specific to three genres. The first is African musical autobiography, of which there are not many written in English; to date, the best-known would include Fela Kuti and Carlos Moore’s Fela: This Bitch of a Life, Manu Dibango’s Three Kilos of Coffee,Miriam Makeba and Nomsa Mwamuka’s Makeba, Hugh Musekela and D. Michael Cheers’s Still Grazin’.

Despite differences in musical tradition, gender, location, or personality, the narrative ethos that unites these works is a particular mix of the euphoric highs of artistic creation and the excitement of the creative lifestyle, against a backdrop of political turmoil, social
change, economic hardship, and exile.Inventor of Afrobeat Tony Allen's Early Career
The second subgenre to which this book belongs is the classics “sideman narrative,” of which Fred Wesley’s Hit me, Fred! is an excellent recent example- a tale of a sideman struggling for recognition while laboring under autocratic and egotistical bandleaders.

The third is the ongoing literature on what might be called “musical Pan-Africanism,” of which Steven Feld’s Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, Robin D. G. Kelley’s Africa Speaks, America Answers, and Ingrid Monson’s Freedom Sounds are three
recent and notable examples.

Ultimately, Tony Allen is a portrait of tenacious human being who has been able to maintain and even prosper within these varying
circumstances, due to abundant talent, resourcefullness, and the personal and spiritual power to renew himself and his life. In this sense, it shares most-narratively and rhetorically- with autobiographies of Dibango, Masekela, and Makeba, on the one hand, and Wesley, on the other…
… Tony Allen’s story also has much in common with the stories of other individual artists in postcolonial Africa, beyond the specific sphereof music. In particular, I found it inspring to write this introduction at the same time that I read Henry Glassie’s revealing biography of the influential Yoruba visual artist Twin Seven Seven.
It was fascinating to compare and contrast the way that two Yoruba modernists- one a visual artist from a traditional rural background in Oshogbo, the other a musican from an urban, cosmopolitan background in Lagos- projected the vitality of Yoruba artistic creativity out into the world in two different yet equally dynamic ways.
Broader issues aside, this book would not have been written in the first place were it not for Tony Allen’s contribution as a drummer. Readers of this book should keep in mind that the concept of a drum kit was a new and novel one in Tony Allen’s world of mid-twentieth-century West African percussion, where the tradition had been (and largely continues to be) ensembles comprised of several musicians playing individual parts.

The polyrhythmic complexity that we typically associate with West African percussion music is a direct result of the combination of these individual parts into complex composite structures (“hocketting”). From its roots in the vaudeville era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, by contrast, the drum set (“drum kit”, “trap drums”) was conceived as a delibrate miniaturization of the percussion section- an economical solution to both spatial and financial constraints.

Its use allowed multiple percussion instruments to be accomodated in the smaller
performing spaces of the vaudevillian theater, and becauseit centralized multiple instruments under the control of a single musician, it was more economical way of employing a percussion section. Thus it is not surprising that, when Tony Allen and other African musicians first heard the sound of the drum set via jazz recordings that made their way to Africa, they assumed they were hearing several musicians playing individual percussion instrumensts.

The irony, of course, is that the jazz drummers had worked hard to master the tecnique of independent movement of his hi-hat cymbals and eventually developing over the entire drum kit -that set him apart from other highlife drummers and established him as a master percussionist by the time Fela’s Koola Lobitos higlife band morphed into the Afrobeat outfit Africa 70 in the early 1970s.
At several points in the text, in fact, Tony Allen emphasizes the signifance of his independent use of the hi-hat cymbals. This might seem a relatively minor point to
most drummers, until they realize that the tradition in Nigerian and Ghanian highlife was to use both hands on snare drum (a technique derived from both indigenous
traditions and British military drumming), while using the other drums for occasional accents. The hi-hat cymbals were rarely used by highlife drummers. When Tony Allen
integrated the hi-hat cymbal, it allowed him to maintain a continuous, jazz-derived offbeat in counterpoint to the rhythms he was playing with his other limbs, and it
also allowed him to integrate the innovaitons of the rhythm & blues and funk drummers who used their hi-hats in variety of dynamic ways.
From the very first moment that I heard Tony Allen’s recorded performances with Africa 70 -such as “Question Jam Answer” (1972); “Confussion,” “Unnecessary Begging,”
“Alagbon Close,” and “Water No Get Enemy” (all 1975); “Yellow Fever” (1976); “Shuffering and Shmiling” (1978)- I knew I was listening to one of the world’s great
drummers. In terms of technique and style, Tony Allen’s sound is most accurately described as a jazz and funk-inflected rearticulation of rhythms drawn from local
Nigerian mambo. He is not a powerhouse fusion drummer on the order of Billy Cobham or Dennis Chambers, nor is he a heavy “fatback” drummer on the order of Parliament-
Funkadelic’s Jerome Brailey or James Brown’s John “Jabo” Starks. His (Tony Allen’s) goal is not awe the listener with virtuosic displays and flashy solos. With a light,
jazzy touch on the instrument, a very polyrhythmic concept of groove playing, and an arsenal of subtle inflections, Tony Allen’s philosophy of drumming privileges
dynamic flow, propulsion, and ongoing conversation with the other members of the percussion section. In this sense, he adheres to core social and philosophical
principles arriculated by West African traditional drummers, many of whom shun virtuosic displays in their performances in order to more effectively ground themselves
within a dynamic musical conversation that is itself part of a broader and ongoing social interaction.

On one hand, Tony Allen’s playing can be understood in the
context of the small-band jazz drummers who inspired him, such as Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, and Art Blakey. On the other, he can be compared with other innovative
drummers of his generation from around the African diaspora, who helped tease new vocabularies of dance music drumming out of jazz by fusing it with various local
idioms, such as Carlton Barrett, Sly Dunbar, and Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace in reggae, or Ziggy Modeliste, David Garibaldi, and Clyde Stubblefield in funk. In the
broadest view, Tony Allen’s playing can be placed in the lineage of drummers in local traditional and popular Nigerian genres such as apala and highlife, who formed the
stylistic context for his emergence. In a more abstract sense, he can also be placed in the lineage of Ghana’s Kofi Ghanaba (1923-2008), one of the progenitors of
“Afro-Jazz” and the acknowledged “father” of African drum set playing, whose American sojourn in the 1950s (which included musical encounters with Duke Ellington,
Charlie Parker, and Max Roach) helped him revolutionize the role of the drum set in West African music. The fact that Tony Allen has recently begun performing on a
custom drum set crafted for him by the artisans at the Art Center in Accra, Ghana (a set that features hand-carved traditional African drums rack-mounted in place of
Westerns tom-toms) suggests that, in a sense, he has come full circle from the days when he admired pioneers of the African drum set such as Ghanaba an Rim Obeng.

“Fefe Naa Efe” (from Fela and Africa 70’s album Gentleman) is not one of Fela’s better-known songs. But for listeners whose ears are attuned to the language of drumming, it is one that makes clear how crucial Tony Allen was to Fela’s project of developing Afrobeat out of highlife by drawing on the structural innovations of funk and the harmonic innovations of modal jazz. The steadily chirping soundstream of hand percussion instruments –clefs (claves), shekere (beaded gourd rattle), and congas- reflect the highlige influence in Fela’s Afrobeat and provide a perfect web of sound for Tony Allen to play within and against.

Like the great jazz drummers, he keeps a steady conversation with the other instruments, particularly the soloists, advancing to the front of the ensemble by playing the ride cymbal for thematic passages and then dropping back into line with the percussion to support the ensemble. Like a great boxer, he knows when to jab with his bass drumin order to punctuate a soloist’s line, when to momentarily scatter and reconsolidate the flow with a hi-hat flourish, when to stoke the tension by laying deeply into the groove, and when to break and restart that tension by interjecting a crackling snare accent on the downbeat. In terms of his solo work, on the other hand, Tony Allen’s solo on Fela’s “Open and Close” (1973) seems to place him most directly in the lineage of Max Roach in terms of structure, phrasing, and sound. This solo, in fact, compares closely with Roach’s own solo on recordings such as Sonny Rollins’s seminal “St. Thomas” (1956).

For many years there was no extant footage of Africa 70 in performance, and as a result I often had to imagine Tony Allen’s body language while playing. When I finally saw Tony Allen play in 2000, my mental image was confirmed: Tony Allen played with a very still, centered torso, allowing each limb to work independently. This orientation is helped by his slim, compact build an medium height, which brings the top of his head to the approximate level of his mounted cymbals. It is this compact sphere of motion that allows him to play fluidly and polyrhythmically.

Tony Allen’s playing has evolved over the decades. With Fela’s Koola Lobitos, he drew on the legacy of big band jazz drumming as it was reflected in dance-band highlife, playing aggresively with the front-line horns. During the early “Afro-rock” years of 1970-71 and songs such as “Chop and Quench” and “Beautiful Dancer,” Tony Allen’s sound was choppy and aggressive, a jazz-inspired fusion of highlife and rhythm & blues drumming that blended with Fela’s choppy, James Brown-inspired guitar and bass patterns. At mid-decade, Tony Allen was playing highly syncopated, funky patterns such as those on “Kalakuta Show” or “Alagbon Close,” which blend funk and highlife in a way that build polyrhythmic tension to the breaking point.

Even after the infamous and devastating army attack on Fela’s “Kalakuta Republic” in early 1977, the musical chemistry between Fela and Tony remain unbroken, as reflected in the somber, funkified clock rhythms of  “Sorrow Tears and Blood” (1977). By the time Africa 70 cut “Shuffering and Shmiling” and “Vagabonds in Power” the following year, Tony Allen’s drumming had become smoother and more jazzy, cutting through the Afro-funk like a sharp knife. In this last phase of the Africa 70 band, Tony Allen began to compose terse, minimalist funk patterns for tracks like “Fear Not for Man” and “No Agreement.”

Since the 1980’s, Tony Allen has gradually tended toward an equally polyrhythmic but less interactive approach, given that his playing has increasingly provided a foundation for a soundscape production style inspired by dub-influenced electronica on albums such as Black Voices (1999). But regardless of how Tony Allen’s playing has evolved, he has never lost the groove, keeping the time as steady as a drum machine, and simultaneously as loose, fluid, and subtle as a jazz drummer.

Fela’s Afrobeat can be viewed from one angle as the final innovation in the evolution of dance-band highlife; from a different angle as the most sophisticated African variant on the early, polyrhythmic style of funk music as it was developed by James Brown and his musicians between 1964 and 1971; and from a third angle as a brilliant indigenization of jazz drumming (a tradition that, for obvious reasons, is itself historically rooted in several core Africanist principles).

In this light, it is interesting to note that many of Tony Allen’s most fruitful collaborations have taken place with American funk and jazz musicians, including former James Brown band members trombonist/arranger Fred Wesley and saxophonist/arranger Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, as well as with vocalists Michael “Clip” Payne and Gary “Mudbone” Cooper and keyboardist Joseph “Amp Fiddler,” all from George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic orbit.

The story of the African diaspora in formulations of contemporary African music. That Tony Allen’s breakthrough moment as a drummer came as a result of his encounter with one of John Coltrane’s drummers is a vivid testimony to the way some of the strongest currents in postwar black music intersected and nourished each other despite historical, cultural, and geographic distances.

An autobiography is an act of self-invention and self-creation and, in this “as told to” format, equally an act of colloboration. My goal was for the book to feel like a continious, relaxed session of Tony Allen telling stories. This was essentially how we conducted the interviews, and this is the kind of narrative flow I have tried to preserve here.

As always, however, transforming raw conversation –no matter how captivating – into a narrative that is simultaneously an authentic representation of the subject and compelling on the page is the major challange in this kind of writing.  The goal is to make the  pages “speak” to the reader, and I would like to think that my knowledgeof African music, jazz, and African culture in general helped me interact with Tony Allen in ways that resulted in the richest and most revealing narrative. Given that Nigeria is officially an English with an idiomatically Nigerian slant. For the most part, Tony Allen did not speak in deep pidgin English or Lagos slang. In editing these conversations into a coherent written narrative I occasionally “smoothed out”  some grammatical anomalies, but overall few adjustments were necessary in the area of language, and I feel that the tone and flavor of Tony Allen’s voice have been accurately reproduced here.

afrobeat-drumming-coverMany tunes of Tony Allen and Fela Kuti

are represented in new book of Anil Sahinoz

‘AFROBEAT DRUMMING’.

 

This book is basically

about decoding and notating

the grooves of master drummer Tony Allen.

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