Afrobeat & Beyond: 16 Songs That Showcase Tony Allen's Masterful Range
From collaborations with Damon Albarn and Flea to his joint album with Hugh Masekela, here are 16 career-spanning songs that highlight the afrobeat pioneer's genre-eclipsing influence.
Tony Allen was a drumming giant. As Brian Eno once put it he was "perhaps, the greatest drummer who ever lived." He was also one of the most important. Along with Fela Kuti, he helped birth Afrobeat—the most influential African musical genre of our time.
The trailblazing musician, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 79, also experimented with other musical styles, bringing his innovative flair to several projects in the latter half of his career. He was an artist who boasted unique versatility. He developed a hybrid sound known as "afrofunk" in his early post-Fela years, and later dabbled in electronica and dub. He went on to produce rock-inflected tracks with the likes of Damon Albarn and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Most recently, he collaborated with the late South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela on their joint album Rejoice.
No matter how far beyond Afrobeat he explored, Allen managed to put his one-of-a-kind musical stamp on every record he blessed with his drums.
The artist's musical contribution is far-reaching, and fellow musicians have taken the time to reflect on the artist's profound legacy in their own way. On Thursday night The Roots drummer, and Afrobeat aficionado Questlove played a DJ set on his Instagram Live in honor of the artist, while Flea shared a heartfelt tribute on Instagram, writing: "I was lucky enough to spend many an hour with him, holed up in a London studio, jamming the days away. It was fucking heavenly. He was and still is, my hero. I wanted to honor his greatness so much when we played together, and I was nervous when we started, but he made me laugh like a two year old, and we fell right into pocket."Allen's career spanned over six decades, throughout which he continued to deliver innovative productions, ensuring that his music will live well into the future. Below, we remember Allen's musical genius by highlighting 16 songs that showcase his unparalleled skill and range.
This bold track form Fela Kuti's 1972 album by the same name, showcases Allen's instrumental prowess through a continual drum pattern that sets the foundation of the song. The track speaks to unnecessary fighting in situations that warrant a more civil response. It's one of their earlier recordings and it set the tone for the the unconstrained sounds that they would go on to create in future records.
"Ginger Baker and Tony Allen Drum Solo Live at the Berlin Jazz Festival 1978"
The iconic Cream drummer, Ginger Baker, shared incredible musical chemistry with Fela Kuti and the Africa '70 band. This is apparent throughout their Live! album, which was recorded in 1971. The album's final track, which features back-and-forth drum solos from both Baker and Allen, is a fiery display of two drum virtuosos in their prime. It's a masterclass in drumming, exemplifying each musician's genre-bending versatility.
In 1979, Tony Allen decided to leave the Africa 70 due to disputes between the band and Fela Kuti over unpaid royalties, and he took several of the band members with him. His most significant record after his departure from Fela's camp is 1984's "N.E.P.A", an abbreviation which means "Never Expect Power Always". The song is a biting criticism and mocking of the Nigerian Electrical Power Authority, the government owned electricity provider, who are notorious for their poor and unreliable service. At this point Afrobeat had begun to evolve, with Allen producing a more modernized outlook than what his blend with Fela had sounded like. Introducing electro-claps to the percussion line, Allen fashioned what was later known as electronic Afrobeat.
"The Good, the Bad & the Queen"
Following Fela Kuti's death in 1997, Tony Allen began to delve more and more into other genres of music, collaborating with groups and musicians of diverse musical influence. He had begun to delve into dub, electronica, and more, however his reputation as an Afrobeat pioneer still preceded him. A longtime fan of Afrobeat, in 2006 singer Damon Albarn enlisted Allen for his supergroup, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, also featuring Clash's Paul Simonon on the bass guitar. Together, the newly formed band released their self-titled debut album in 2007 and another in 2018. Allen's contribution added to the band's, polyrhythmic appeal, proving that Allen, even in his later years, was never scared to experiment.
"No Accommodation for Lagos"
Allen produced his own solo recordings with the Africa '70 band, including 1975's Jealousy, 1977's Progress and the 1979 album No Accommodation For Lagos—his last recording with the Africa '70 band. The smoldering lead track captures the hardships of life in a crowded Lagos with its expressive instrumentation and political leanings. The album's cover art illustrates this visceral struggle through its daring drawings—an artistic device used generously by both Kuti and Allen alike to support their musical message.
"Zombie," one of Kuti's most brazen and celebrated recordings, was a bold indictment on the mindless actions of Nigeria's military government. The song criticized the Nigerian army for their blind obedience when being used by political leaders and those in positions of power to do their bidding, particularly in the execution of abuses of power. Allen's drums were the backbone for this record, the success of which came with consequences: Fela's Lagos residence was stormed by the army, his studio set on fire, and his mother thrown out from a window, leading to her death. The song is a prime example of the artists' rare ability to marry fiercely politically lyrics with groovy, dance-worthy production. As a result, "Zombie" is one of the most impactful recordings of Fela Kuti's career both stylistically and thematically.
"Rocket Juice & The Moon"
In 2008, Tony Allen, Damon Albarn and Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers came together to form yet another supergroup, named Rocket Juice and the Moon. They began working on their first project in the same year, however due to various other projects by the band members recording was repeatedly delayed. They ended up dropping their self-titled debut album in 2012, 18 tracks with Damon on guitar, keys, and vocals, Allen on drums, Flea on bass, and a host of guest musicians including Erykah Badu, Thundercat, Ghanaian rapper M.anifest, and Ghanaian rapper M3nsa.
"Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same)"
When the Afrobeat pioneer teamed up with the South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela in 2010 for a number of unrehearsed recording sessions (they created trumpet melodies and drum patterns on the spot), they called their recordings a "kind of South African-Nigerian swing-jazz stew." This led to the creation of their joint album Rejoice a decade later. Released just last month, "Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same), is a tribute to their late collaborator and friend Fela Kuti. It's a meeting of musical legends that highlights their late-career showmanship, and a long overdue collaboration by Africa's finest horn player and Africa's most distinctive drummer.
One of the highlights of Fela Kuti's extensive catalog, "Confusion" is a social commentary on the confused state of post-colonial Lagos and its lack of infrastructure and proper leadership at the time. 25 minutes long, the song starts with a five minute, free-rhythm dialogue between Fela on the electric piano and Allen on the drums, then moving to an arrangement of lead guitars, bass guitar, and horns, and then concluding with Fela's lead vocals in the final 10 minutes.
"Yere Faga," Oumou Sangaré ft. Tony Allen"
In 2017, powerhouse Malian vocalist Oumou Sangaré released this striking collaboration with Allen. It saw the musician delivering a groovy drum performance reminiscent of his earlier Afrobeat recordings. The song joined two of the continent's most renowned artists, and reflected Allen's dedication to Pan-African musical collaborations.
The title track of Fela Kuti's 1973 album of the same name, it was written and produced by Fela and recorded with his Africa 70 band, of which Tony Allen was the drummer and music director. The song was Fela's commentary on the colonial mentality of Africans who adhere to European customs, such as wearing European-type clothing in Africa's much hotter climate. While Kuti's sardonic, anti-Western lyrics and memorable saxophone riff get a lot of shine on the song, Allen's drum line never lets up—providing the faithful backbone of the boisterous, socially-minded track. It was one of Fela Kuti's earliest major hits, and an anthem for Afrobeat lovers around the world..
In 2017, Allen released the EP A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. He paid homage to the groundbreaking American jazz drummer, who he named as one of his earliest musical influences. He delivered a more classic jazz performance in the style of his hero on the track "Moanin'—further highlighting his undeniable range.
"Water No Get Enemy"
Another one of Fela Kuti's more impactful recordings, Tony Allen's percussion delivers an easygoing shuffle while Fela's vocals deliver a philosophical message. The second track of Fela's 1975 abum Expensive Shit, Fela takes a break from government criticism to juxtapose the power of water literally and metaphorically. Allen's steady, shaker-filled percussion formed the rhythm of this cultural anthem.
Allen would collaborate with Damon Albarn several times throughout his career. The Gorillaz frontman credited Allen with being one of his biggest musical influences. "Go Back" features retrospective lyrics from Albarn and an understated, yet bright performance from Allen. They performed the song together live on the French television channel CANAL+ in 2014.
With its clanging hi-hats and funk-inflected rhythm "No Agreement," spotlights Allen's pace and dexterity. It seems that on "No Agreement," Allen's smooth pacing moved the normally exuberant Fela to be a hint more restrained in his vocal delivery. You'd imagine such a consistent drum pattern to require optimal focus, yet as always, Allen makes it all sound completely effortless.
"Wolf Eats Wolf"
This 2017 song from the artist could be described more closely as "afro-jazz" for its heavily brassy, yet neat production. The music video shows footage of Allen during a live studio recording. We see a calm and enthusiastic artist who, even after several decades, never seemed to have lost a step.
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