The great Tony Allen sadly passed away last month. Tributes have flooded in from around the world, recognising his immense talent, and testifying to him being kind, humble and approachable; always ready to advise and encourage young musicians. Were he still with us, Fela, the Father of Afrobeat, would have certainly confirmed Tony as having been a more than able band leader during the 14 years of their association and surely the best drummer he had ever known.
However, media reports of his passing have led with headings that credit Tony as the “Co-creator of Afrobeat”. Tony was a good friend of mine for many years, for whom I have infinite respect and affection, both as a human being and consummately gifted musician. I never heard him making such a claim for himself and feel that he would have found such a description of his relationship with Fela both embarrassing and inaccurate.
Over the 40 or so albums that were recorded up to 1978 when Tony left Afrika 70, his drumming has rightfully been lauded as exemplary and unquestionably contributed to the success of those albums. Amongst the many drummers that I’ve had the privilege to know and work with over the years, Tony’s unique skill places him firmly head and shoulders at the forefront. To some musicians, such as Brian Eno, it led to him bequeathing Tony with the title “Perhaps the world’s greatest drummer.” I, for one, wouldn’t argue with that accolade.
As Fela’s friend and manager, I’ve witnessed the creation of songs on many occasions and the almost obsessive attention he brought to every last detail of the overall production. Even at sound check before a show, Fela would personally tune every single instrument, even the drums, although I doubt that he would have needed to do so with as consummate a drummer as Tony. But that’s still a long way from ‘co-creator’ of the entire opus. From composition, arrangements, rehearsals, on stage performances and in the studio, Fela was totally in charge. Always.
Afrobeat wasn’t just about the drums. It was an extraordinary multi-instrument, multi-voiced, symphony; a musical chariot in which Fela’s eloquent diatribes against social injustice could ride and for which he paid the steep price of 200 arrests, vicious beatings and imprisonment. That was Afrobeat.
This is by no means a denigration of Tony’s unique and universally respected contribution. Just an advice to journalists to carefully consider their use of hyperbole. Let’s give credit where credit is due.
Despite the hurt many of us are feeling right now, we should not let our grief at the loss of such an iconic musician cloud our judgement or obscure the facts.
My sincere condolences to Tony’s family, wishing them a long and health-filled life.
Over the years I’d been delighted to see his career go from strength to strength. Now that, sadly, he has left us, and once public gatherings and travel are possible again, tributes to Tony will surely take place across the world. I look forward to joining some of them.
Rest in peace Tony.
Friend and Manager of Fela Kuti for 15 years, Rikki Stein continues to defend and promote his legacy, in close association with The Fela Anikulapo Kuti Estate.