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TRIBUTE: Tony Allen (1940- 2020) by John Fordham

John Fordham pays tribute to Tony Allen. 

Of all the popular sounds of the 20th century fired up by the spontaneity and rhythmic creativity of jazz, Afrobeat’s morphing of that music into Nigerian and Ghanaian highlife traditions, Caribbean grooves and James Brown funk in the 1970s has been one of the most influential, joyously communal – and politically sussed. All that vivid history, with the current rise of the music’s 21st century pop offspring ‘Afrobeats’ as its footnote, spurred the music world’s reaction to last week’s news that the drummer Tony Allen – who, alongside Afrobeat’s pioneering genius Fela Kuti, was probably the genre’s most potent force – had died suddenly in Paris of an aortic aneurysm on Thursday evening, April 30, at the age of 79.

Tony Allen at the “Rejoice” album launch at the Church of Sound, London, March 2020. Photo credit Roger Thomas

The sound of Allen’s playing was such a heartwarming fusion of sensitivity and imaginative power, from his explosive collaborations with Kuti’s Africa 70 groups to his late-life debut for the legendary Blue Note label with an effortlessly genre-twisting tribute to his jazz heroes in 2017 (‘The Source’) and a typically open-minded meeting with American techno and electronics guru Jeff ‘The Wizard’ Mills a year later (‘Locked and Loaded’), that it’s momentarily hard to grasp the idea of such a wide and rolling river of music being stilled. Allen had been interviewed by The Guardian’s Robin Denselow only six weeks earlier, planning a post-lockdown ‘travel album’ of meetings with young musicians in Nigeria, London, Paris and the States, and hooking up again with Britpop star Damian Albarn, one of his most famous fans.

Music lovers greet news like this in personal ways as well as shared ones. I found myself drifting back to early-1970s days during my randomly-acquired apprenticeship to reporting on the arts of jazz; one guidebook I came across then had turned out to be particularly revelatory – ‘Jazz People’, a collection of photographs and interviews with musicians by the British photojournalist and writer Val WiImer. Wilmer was, and continues to be, one of those rare souls who brings musical intuitions and cultural insight harmoniously together, as conversations in that book with 14 artists including Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean and Cecil Taylor confirmed. But it was an interview with a now-departed drummer, saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s frequent partner Billy Higgins, that particularly caught my attention then. Wilmer headlined her interview with Higgins as ‘a lesson in lovemaking’ – because he had rejected a cliche of his era that drummers beat the daylights out of anything within reach, preferring to characterise the art of hitting things in terms of sensuality and intimacy, without forgetting that living involves an ever-shifting balance of receptiveness and insistence too. Listening to Tony Allen playing in almost any musical setting had the same effect.

Allen was born in Lagos on August 12 1940, and took to percussion in his teens, inspired by American jazz drummers spanning swing stars like Benny Goodman’s Gene Krupa, bebop virtuosi such as Max Roach (a key inspiration for him), Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, and John Coltrane’s powerhouse partner Elvin Jones. In 1969, on a US tour with Fela Kuti in Africa 70’s predecessor Koola Lobitos, Allen also met the revered West Coast drummer Frank Butler, who encouraged him to practise on pillows rather than the kit, to develop a subtler sound.

Nigeria’s club circuit also demanded adaptability to almost any style, and Allen would later reflect that anything from Latin jazz to bebop, highlife and funk – and the ability to segue between them without a blink – were expected professional skills in the 1960s. They were the ones that Fela Kuti (who had been turned on by jazz as diversely inflected by African players on his brief tenure as a medical student in London in the late 1950s) demanded when the pair first met in 1964. From 1970 on, Allen and Kuti developed Afrobeat’s signature chemistry of pumping horn hooks, edgy guitar sounds, ducking-and-diving basslines, and long jazz-inspired improvisations, evolving a shifting balance of organisation and freedom that musicians of many persuasions all over the world increasingly came to marvel at. When Brian Eno played Kuti and Allen’s album Afrodisiac to the Talking Heads musicians in the early 1970s, he told them ‘this is the music of the future’.

The pair were the life-force of Afrobeat for a decade, but the politically implacable Kuti’s high-risk collisions with Nigeria’s then autocratic government and his recklessness with money eventually separated them, and Tony Allen launched his own musical life in 1978 – developing a creative career that was as freewheelingly open to all manner of influences as it was firmly focused on a personal vision of what the role of a creative drummer is. In his 60s, Allen brought his inimitable sound to French pop with Charlotte Gainsbourg, indie rock with Albarn and The Good, the Bad & the Queen, techno with German percussionist/producer Moritz von Oswald and Jeff Mills, and imaginative, powerfully African-inflected tributes to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and its Blue Note successor ‘The Source’ – both of the latter remarkable testaments to the completion of the circle that began in west Africa, evolved in the New World, and returned to become a new musical life-form in which old and new materials were realigned.

Tony Allen’s mastery of a drum kit enabled all those sounds to happen – but so did a wisdom rarer than virtuosity, about how some of the world’s most affecting and inspiring music has been made. Billy Higgins’ words to Val Wilmer long ago seem to come back into the frame of paying tribute to Tony Allen’s magic. ‘Music don’t belong to nobody,’ Higgins insisted to Wilmer. ‘If they could just realise that music doesn’t come from you, it comes through you, and if you don’t get the right vibrations, you might kill a little bit of it. You can’t take music for granted.’

Tony Oladipo Allen. Born 12 August 1940, Lagos, Nigeria. Died 30 April 2020, Paris, France.

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