Tony Allen, the true owner of Afrobeat
On paper, New York theatre's biggest sensation may at first seem an unlikely proposition. But Fela! - a Tony Award-winning musical based on the life and work of the late Nigerian saxophonist and band leader Fela Anikulapo Kuti - has a number of aces up its sleeve. Blessed with an almost ready-made score of classic tunes and a central character so charismatically rebellious he founded his own republic in the 1970s, it is indeed an entertaining evening out and, for many, a valuable introduction to the work of a pioneering figure in African pop culture.
However, while few people would ever expect a Broadway show to offer any kind of benchmark in historical accuracy, the play's writers make one oversight too glaring to ignore. In a pivotal scene, Kuti (played by Sahr Ngaujah) calls to his band for "brass", "bass", "chicken-scratch guitar". As he does, individual instrumentalists reply accordingly. It's a slick dramatic device that offers an object lesson in the component parts of Kuti's Afrobeat sound - a vibrant collision of jazz, deep funk and traditional polyrhythms that dominated West African dancefloors for decades. It also firmly establishes Kuti as the genre's sole creator. For those familiar with more nuanced versions of West African musical history, however, this narrative falls apart when Kuti makes reference to the driving jazz-inflected beats that have underpinned his monologue. "Do you hear those drums?" he asks, "those are MY drums!" As this line rings out across the auditorium, one cannot help but wonder what Tony Allen would make of its sweeping proclamation of ownership. For Afrobeat's drums were, and still remain, indisputably his.
Despite the desire to frame Afrobeat's story as another convenient myth of "one great man", Allen's contribution to Kuti's legend cannot be overstated. Described by Brian Eno as "perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived", the veteran musician is now 69 years old, but maintains a schedule of commitments that would be gruelling for a man half his age. In addition to an apparently unquenchable thirst for live performance, the last few years have seen him collaborate with everyone from Damon Albarn to Charlotte Gainsbourg and the Finnish experimental pop musician Jimi Tenor. Meanwhile, in his own right, the recently released solo album Secret Agent offers an engaging, subtly contemporary update of the style's blueprint.
For these reasons, it is surprising to see Allen all but erased from what has become the world's most visible celebration of Afrobeat's legacy. Although Kuti may have been one in a long line of hegemonically headstrong band leaders, the shared history and mutual admiration between he and Allen ran deep. They met in 1964, when Kuti returned to Lagos from a trip to London. Allen was already an established figure on the Nigerian capital's club scene, a self-taught drummer fluent not just in the West African highlife and traditional Yoruba rhythms, but the classic be-bop of players such as Max Roach and Art Blakey. With Allen's trap-drums as a foundation, Kuti's early band, Koola Lobitos, explored a multitude of directions: highlife and jazz, US rhythm and blues, and Afro-Latin rumba. Like many other crossover outfits of the era, though, the group still lacked focus, originality, their own identity and point of view.
This was all to change with a 1969 tour of the United States. Confronted with the then-burgeoning phenomena of Afrocentrism, Black Power, free jazz and funk, both men's eyes were opened to a wealth of new possibilities. On their arrival back in Nigeria, Kuti's lyrics turned sharply towards social concerns, and the influences of foreign sounds on his band faded, exchanged for an electrified call-and-response model of keyboards, brass and voices.
At the heart of this new sound sat Allen. With the fluidity of his be-bop heroes, he chopped up the rhythmic tropes of highlife and R&B into propulsive patterns all of his own, developing a signature style that demanded near-impossible physical dexterity. (It is often noted that Allen is able to drum using all four of his limbs at the same time, each in an entirely different time signature.) Despite his prodigious talents, Allen also had an uncanny ability to bring out the best in his fellow performers; accentuating the drama of vocal accompaniment, backing up horn vamps and adding vital punctuation to soaring organ crescendos. By 1972, Kuti's band, now redubbed Africa 70, had become one of the continent's most formidable musical forces, the founders of a truly revolutionary brand of African funk.
Where the raw power of James Brown and the multilayered diversity of indigenous Nigerian music offered sonic inspiration, the realities of post-colonial Africa gave Kuti his cause. The independence that many had hoped would represent a great leap forward for the continent's native citizens had, in Nigeria, instead ushered in an era of rampant corruption, institutional deception and state-sanctioned brutality. While Kuti's attacks on multinational businesses, the government and its agents were deeply pertinent, his righteous sloganeering would have counted for little without the backing of players such as Allen. Supported by Africa 70's incendiary instrumentation, Kuti blossomed throughout the 1970s into Africa's own militant Marley, cementing the reputation that he now posthumously enjoys with a torrent of albums, including 1972's Shakara and 1977's Zombie. Sadly, his was also the kind of energy that few musicians can long withstand. In 1979, while under increasing pressure and scrutiny from Nigeria's military regime, Kuti began to use his musical platform - and profits - in an effort to gain political office (often at the expense of paying his musicians). Allen left the band.
Where, as an ostensibly solo artist, Kuti followed a path that continued to build his own cult of personality, Allen's aesthetic turned decisively inward. Counter to his former colleague's idea of Afrobeat as a galvanising vehicle for vocal dissent, for Allen it was primarily an abstract, artistic language. While he never abandoned his own convictions - the 1985 album NEPA (Never Expect Power Always), for instance, delivers a no-holds-barred roasting of the Nigerian Electrical Power Authority - his aim shifted to the task of spreading his rhythms as far and wide as possible. After Kuti's death from an Aids-related illness in 1997, this mission has been virtually unbroken.
Allen, working and living in Paris for the past dozen years, is now more prolific than ever. There have been excursions into the deepest Afro-dub with the French producer Doctor L (under the cryptic name Psyco on the Bus) and the 2007 album The Good, the Bad & the Queen with Albarn and the former Clash bassist Paul Simonon - a record on which, as one might expect, the rhythm section dwarfs everything in its path. Meanwhile, a steady stream of remix projects has also opened up. The best of these, 2008's Lagos Shake, finds Allen credibly recontextualised as a forefather of everything from the steely futurism of Detroit techno to the rough and rugged sounds of late-period UK garage.
However, the best evidence of Allen's place in the lineage of great African musicians lies in perhaps the most traditional of his recent recordings. Elewon Po, a captivating slice of Afro-soul that closes Secret Agent, is, in many ways, strongly reminiscent of the work that he and Kuti made in Lagos four decades ago - the sort of music he seems almost born to play. Delivering delicately spoke-sung lyrics that address issues of human rights and justice over rippling percussion, the performer is clearly in his element. Although his story will, in all likelihood, remain largely inextricable from the mythic status of his most famous creative partner, here he sounds like a man completely secure in his own convictions and at one with his own gifts: an artist who has lived his own life, his own way and accomplished incredible things. As such, his career cannot be overshadowed.
Piotr Orlov is a writer, curator and DJ living in New York.
Published: July 2, 2010 04:00 AM