Recently, legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who created afrobeat along with his old bandmate Fela Kuti, died suddenly at the age of 79. Here are some interesting facts about the legend.
1. Tony Oladipo Allen was born to a middle-class Lagos family and taught himself the drums and developed his own unique style by obsessing over jazz drummer heroes from the bebop era including Art Blakey and Max Roach. In the early 1960s, he became a regular on the Lagos club circuit which was dominated by the West African highlife sound.
It was during this period he first met Fela Ransome Kuti, who was developing a highlife band called the Koola Lobitos. By 1968/69 that band had evolved into Fela’s groundbreaking Afrika 70, led by Allen on drums with Lekan Animashaun on baritone saxophone.
2. Allen was the drummer and musical director of Fela Kuti’s band, Africa ’70, in the 60s and 70s. During that time the pair created Afrobeat, combining West African musical styles such as highlife and fuji music with US jazz and funk. Afrobeat went on to become one of the totemic genres of 20th-century African music.
3. Allen and Kuti recorded about 40 albums as Africa ’70, before parting ways after a mythic, 26-year collaboration, with Allen citing Kuti’s disorganisation and debts to him as the reason for his departure. Such was the hole that Allen left in his band, Kuti required several drummers to replace him.
4. In 1969, touring the US for the first time with Kuti, a meeting with west coast jazz drummer Frank Butler inspired him to practise every morning on pillows, making his sticks bounce off them while he was rolling. “It adds flexibility,” he said. “Very effective. Effortless – that’s what I tried to catch from [Butler].” As part of Kuti’s band, he would sometimes drum for six hours without a break.
5. Allen taught himself to play drums at the age of 18, drawing inspiration from the US jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, as well as contemporary African music. He has attributed his versatility to the need to make a living as a jobbing musician in Lagos in the early 60s. “Latin American, African horns, jazz, highlife … you had to be able to play it all because in the club they asked for it,” he said.
6. His most recent album was ‘Rejoice’, a collaboration with Hugh Masekela. The pair met in Nigeria in the 70s, when Allen was playing with Kuti.
7. This year he planned to work on what he described as a “travel album”, playing with young musicians in Nigeria, London, Paris, and the US, “because I want to take care of youngsters – they have messages and I want to bring them on my beat,” he told the Guardian.
8. The drummer never quite reached the commercial highs or political influence of his friend, he soon became a cultural icon of modern African music particularly after the death of Fela Kuti in 1997. Allen was also a huge critics’ favorite for continuing to push musical boundaries with his unique drumming sound late into his life.
9. Despite coming to the drums relatively late, the British musician and producer Brian Eno called Allen “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived”.
10. As tributes flooded in across the music industry, with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, a collaborator of Allen’s, sharing an image of the drummer to Instagram with a lengthy statement. He is the co-founder of Afrobeat.
‘The epic Tony Allen, one of the greatest drummers to ever walk this earth has left us,’ Flea wrote. ‘What a wildman, with a massive, kind and free heart and the deepest one-of-a-kind groove.’
He continued: ‘Fela Kuti did not invent afrobeat, Fela and Tony birthed it together. Without Tony Allen, there is NO afrobeat.