Tony Allen. Photo by Bernard Benant.
Tony Allen, the longtime drummer with African music legend Fela Kuti, has died in France. As the drummer with Fela’s groundbreaking band Africa ’70, Allen was responsible for creating many of the beats that defined Afrobeat music, the mix of jazz, funk, and the Yoruban style of Nigerian music that remains one of the most influential and timeless styles of the past half century.
In an October 2009 feature on Allen, Modern Drummer’s Michael Parillo laid out the musician’s ascendence and importance this way: “In 1964, Allen, who was born in 1940, and began his career as a jazz drummer, was playing the popular dance style highlife in the Nigerian city of Lagos when he auditioned for a group led by Fela, a fellow jazzer. A luckier, more fateful meeting would be hard to imagine; in terms of world music, it’s as heavy as the day John Coltrane first shook hands with Elvin Jones.”
Among the many unique aspects of Allen’s drumming was his hi-hat work. In that same MD feature, he explained the source of his fascination with the instrument: “In the ’60s I discovered Max Roach’s hi-hat lesson in DownBeat [magazine], about two pages. Before that, when I was playing drums I knew something was missing because everybody had a hi-hat but they never used it. The hi-hat was there, but it was not played. So I thought, Something is wrong. And then, when I discovered that [article] I said, ‘Yeah, that’s it—I’m sure now; let me go and fix it.'”
Allen’s snare and bass drum work were equally idiosyncratic, and together, his snare/bass/hats work represented a unique, complex, and undeniably funky matrix of rhythm that has mystified and fascinated drummers around the world for decades.
Allen at his tribute concert to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in Paris, 2016.
After leaving Fela’s band at the end of the ’70s, Allen, who had already established creative relationships with important artists in the rock world, including Ginger Baker and Brian Eno, recorded a stream of imaginative and infectious solo albums and collaborations, and saw his work become revered by a new generation of players.
Reflecting his importance on the contemporary music scene, Allen was included in Modern Drummer’s list of the 50 greatest drummers of all time, alongside icons of the instrument like John Bonham, Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Carlton Barrett, and, indeed, his early influence Max Roach.
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Check Out Allen’s Afrobeat Lesson