Tony Allen – An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat by Michael E. Veal

Do you wonder about Tony Allen? Are you interested with afrobeat and drumming? If your answer “yes!” for these questions than I highly recommend you to get this great autobiographical book of Tony Allen; “Tony Allen – An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat” by Michael E. Veal. Book contains most important eras of Tony Allen, you can read lots of details about how Allen started on the drums, his meeting with Fela and all this crazy happenings around a innovator of afrobeat drumming, while he is struggling with Nigerian army, Fela’s dominant character as a orchestra leader and more…

I would like to share you introduction of this great material of Tony Allen, with the powerful words of Michael Veal, I believe you realize more about afrobeat, afrobeat drumming and of course Tony Oladipo Allen…

“In this era when art of drumming is being challenged by the art of digital drum programming, the masters of drum set playing are more valuable to us than ever. Their ability to manipulate the human nervous system into ecstasy by segmenting perception into a matrix of clashing and interlocking rhythms ensures that no matter how much their work is digitally sampled, looped, or chopped, the sonic power of their real-time rhythm remains unparalleled and undiminished. This sonic power is crucial for us because it also contains social power. In the decades immediately following World War II, for example, the bebop and postbop drumming innovations of Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Art Blakey helped bolster modern jazz’s cultural demand for recognition as a high-intensity African American art music of the postwar American metropolis. In the 1960s, the syncopated funk rhythms of drummers such as Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, and Ziggy Modeliste helped bolster a revolution in political and cultural consciousness by reasserting a sonic image of “Africa” into the African American cultural equation. In Jamaica, the cultural imperatives of Rastafari-influenced roots reggae were voiced upon a foundation laid by drummers such as Carlton Barrett, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Carlton “Santa” Davis, Lowell “Sly” Dunbar, and others. In Nigeria, Tony Allen is another master of the drum set whose rhythmic innovations with Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti helped power a critique of cultural attitudes that resonated across postcolonial Africa and beyond. As dance music producers around the world look toward Africa for compelling rhythms, as jazz drummers continue to absorb the influence of world percussion traditions, and as the power of rhythm continues to give dancers a glimpse of liberation and of joy, it is time for Tony Oladipo Allen to be recognized for his major contribution to the world of drumming and to contemporary African music.

It has been an honor for me to participate in that recognition by coauthoring Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat. Tony and I first met in New York City in 2000, and, based on my previous work on Fela Kuti, he asked me to help write his autobiography. The process has been an adventure, on many levels. Most of the formal interviewing for this book took place intermittently between 2004 and 2011, mainly Tony’s home in the Parisian suburb of Courbevoie. But the book also chronicles informal conversations we had elsewhere – in moving cars, on the Paris Metro, and backstage in dressing rooms across Europe. Many West Africans are naturally gifted storytellers- experts at instilling dramatic tension into even the most mundane anecdotes – and Tony is no different. The recollections and insights in this book, however, are anything but mundane; Tony’s story is fascinating, providing insight into the man many consider Africa’s greatest drum set player.

Tony’s journey is a complex one that transcends many boundaries and subverts simplistic and essentialized ideas about African culture and identity. From the beginning, he was a nonconformist who instinctively rejected many of the strict formalities associated with traditional Yoruba culture. He grew up in Lagos as the oldest child of a Protestant, Nigerian, Yoruba father and Catholic, Ghanaian, Ewe mother, his paternal family name long ago Anglicized by Christian missionaries and slave traders. Despite being repeatedly warned about the risks of an artistic lifestyle, Tony – like most other musicians- simply had to play music, but, unusually for African families, his parents were ultimately supportive of his musical inclinations despite their own doubts, giving him space to “find his own way.” Tony, then, is a twentieth-century, urban African modernist, and his life story should be understood as reflecting the complexities of his time. 

This is the story of a musician -both a human story and a musical story, told on the rhetorical turf of a musician and a musician-academic. On his own terms and in its own language, Tony’s story provides many angles on the proverbial broader picture. It is a glimpse into the musical worlds of post -World War II Nigeria and Ghana of the 1950s and 1960s- a crucial yet underdocumented period of Africa’s musical history- and it offers a colorful articulation of many themes central to the history of African popular music. Tony’s early travails as a freelance musician in Nigeria dramatize the difficulty of keeping bands together amid jealousy, intrigue, the trials and tribulations of patronage, and intense competition for meager resources. We see musicians striving for status in a strongly hierarchical society that has not typically accorded musicians a great amount of social prestige. We see the enormous power that words of praise or insult hold in West Africa. We see music used as a powerful agent both social cohesion and social (especially ethnic) division. We witness an entire post-war generation of innovative music sprout on the wings of Pan-Africanist cultural currents, and with music as a medium of both cross-cultural understanding and misunderstanding, we see the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora reencounter each other after centuries of separation de to slavery and colonization. We see successive trends in West African popular music as it is impacted by popular genres from around the African diaspora, such as jazz, son, calypso, mambo, soul, funk, reggae, dub, and hip-hop. Finally, we see the advent of “world beat,” and of expatriate African musicians making careers for themselves outside their native countries in the context of globalization, and in the wake ıf collapsed and formerly viable national music industries in Africa. In the big picture, Tony’s story parallels the history of Nigeria in the second half of the twentieth century, as the country progressed from the last decades of colonization, to national independence and civil war in the 1960s, to the oil boom and its radically destabilizing social effects in the 1970s, and on to the military dictatorships of the 1980s and 1990s and the uncertainties of the new century. Other themes might be thought of African musical modernity; the challenge of surviving as an African musician in Europe and as an English-speaking musician in France; and an intimate view of the inner world of Fela Kuti’s Koata Lobitos and Africa 70 -two of the greatest bands to ever play African popular music.



The most obvious answer is that in general the contribution of drummers is not widely recognized. It is an oft-repeated truism among musicians that “a great drummer can make any band sound great,” but this sentiment is not widely understood by the general public, who -for obvious reasons- are much more inclined to focus on lead vocalists and flashy front-line soloists than they are on the musician powering the band from beneath a halo of cymbals. This may explain why to date there are so few biographies of any of the masters of the drum set.

Another, more subtle factor is that Tony Allen himself alludes to in this text. It is often the case that outside Africa, “African drumming” is stereotypically understood to mean “hand drumming.” In fact, Tony Allen is just one of several excellent African drum set players -including Paco Sery, Kofi Ghanaba (Guy Warren), and Remi Kabaka- whose contributions have been marginalized in the primitivist/exoticist discourse around African drumming that prevails in the West. This is particularly ironic given that a number of the great American jazz drummers have expressed their admiration for Tony Allen’s playing. In the biggest picture, the marginalization of African drum set players reflects the West’s ongoing reluctance to acknowledge Africa’s contribution to modernity in any field of endeavor.

A third reason that Tony Allen’s best-known work was created in the employ of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-1997), a bandleader not always known for his generosity in promoting or acknowledging his sidemen. In all fairness, Fela was not unique among African bandleaders in this regard. The greatness of African popular music is fundamentally predicated on communal creation, but the flow of power, compensation and recognition in most bands is almost invariably top-down and pyramidally shaped. Very few individual African musicians have been able to carve out names for themselves outside the bands with which they are associated, regardless of their talent. This was even more the case in Fela’s bands given that all of the music was composed and arranged solely by him, and because so much of his presentation was based around his personality. 

Tony Allen was an official member of Fela’s band for fifteen years, but their de facto professional and personal association spanned three and a half turbulent decades. These constitute what were arguably the most exciting and cutting-edge decades in the history of West African popular music, and they were decades during which Fela was one of the central figures. But this book is not a mere filling-in of the gaps in Fela’s story, given how Tony was to his music. In the same way that the achievements of John Coltrane would have been unthinkable without the contributions of Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, the achievements of Miles Davis unthinkable without the contributions of Philly Joe Jones, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJonhette, the achievements of Ornette Coleman unthinkable without the contributions of Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and the achievements of James Brown unthinkable without the contributions of Clyde Stubbefield and John “Jabo” Starks, the achievements of Fela would have been unthinkable without the contributions of Tony Allen. It is worth noting that of all these drummers, Tony Allen is the only one to date who is the subject of a full-length biography or autobiography. His name might not be as widely known as Fela’s, but the truth is that few substantial articles about Fela fail to mention Tony’s contribution to the development of Afrobeat, and everyone agrees that Fela’s music according to the designations “With Tony Allen” and “After Tony Allen.” Fela went on to write many more brilliant compositions between Allen’s departure and his own death in 1997, but in general they lacked rhythmic dynamism that Tony had added to greatest music. As Tony has often noted, his parts were the only ones in the band that were not precomposed by Fela. Comparing Tony’s “No Accommodation” (recorded with Africa 70 in 1979) with Fela’s 1982 track “Original Sufferhead” (both songs are built from similar drum set patterns) makes clear that just what and how much Fela lost when he lost Tony. Nevertheless, Tony’s influence remained fundamental to Fela’s music and the afrobeat patterns he composed with Fela in the 1970s were used as generic patterns by all of Fela’s later drummers, including Adebiyi Ajayi, Ogbona Alphonso, “Moustique,” Masefswe Anam, Nicholas “Ringo” Avom, Benjamin (Ola) Ijagun, and many others. Tony acknowledges Fela’s genius throughout this story, but Fela’s greatest music would have had much less of its lasting power had Tony not made such a seminal contribution to it…

 Well this is the opening of the “introduction” section of Michael E. Veal’s Tony Allen – An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat book. Michael Veal depicts why Tony Allen’s fame not has got it deserved respect duribg the past years, and Allen’s relation with Fela Kuti… Tony Allen’s unique innovation on modern world of music needs to be spoken more, to be analized more and to be listened more. I strongly believe that drumming like a knowledge and wisdom like Tony Allen adds unbelieveable supports and tastes to any kind music. It is not about being a master drummer like Tony allen but it is about to be able to think more sophisticated and wisdom when we are sit our drum thrones. This great splendor instruments can give us an amazing thinking style for making music; we can embrace the every harmonics in the project that we take place and I know that we can give the people importance of a drum set in music, just like Tony Allen’s way, you can turn your musical project that you played in a king or  you can make it a creep without of any musical contribution.

Anil Sahinoz

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