Tony Allen: Afrobeat Legend

Drummer Tony AllenAs the most important drummer in African music, Tony Allen provided the Afrobeat pulse for Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70s band and recorded a clutch of solo albums (Jealousy, Progress, Lagos No Shaking). Currently Allen works for UK supergroup The Good, The Bad, And The Queen, which features Blur’s Damon Albarn and The Clash’s Paul Simonen. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Allen is highly revered the world over, and can count Cream’s Ginger Baker among his biggest fans. Creating an almost supernatural groove, Allen’s drumming is equal parts Yoruban religious ceremony, funk, and African pop rhythms.

“That’s what transpires in my mind,” Allen says, “this collective rhythm. I’m kind of complicated, and I sometimes complicate issues for myself. But I love to challenge myself too. This drumming business is not limited. It’s something that can never be finished. A drummer cannot finish exploring.”

Though self taught, Allen cites Max Roach and Art Blakey as major influences. But that doesn’t explain his ability to obtain maximum groove with minimum energy. “I can play very loud and very strong,” he admits. “But dynamics are everything. I cannot afford to play like a machine from beginning to end. There’s time for everything to go up and come down. When I decide to go up, you will hear me. But I can’t do that all the time. It doesn’t make sense.” Advertisement

A longtime advocate of Pearl drums and Zildjian cymbals, Allen can play every style of music, but his heart remains in Africa. “Afrobeat is special,” he insists. “You choose if you want to be a part of it. There is high life, Juju music, Fuji music–many other types of music going on in Africa. Afrobeat is just one of them. But I’m still playing Afrobeat.”

Ken Micallef