On 12 and 13 March there were two concerts in the Church of Sound series at St James the Great Church in Clapton, east London. They were staged in the round, with both the audience and the small band of brass, keyboards and guitar circled around the star player, arguably the finest drummer on the planet.
As ever, Tony Allen looked cool and relaxed, sporting a hat and dark glasses, sitting upright with the rest of his body hardly moving as his hands and feet beat out the thrilling, complex rhythms, or “patterns” as he called them. The music came from his latest album, Rejoice, recorded with his friend Hugh Masekela, and these were to be his last shows.
Allen, who has died aged 79 of an aortic aneurysm, was the co-creator of Afrobeat, the fusion of funk, jazz and African styles that he pioneered in Nigeria alongside Fela Kuti in the late 1960s and 70s. But he had never stopped experimenting, fusing Afrobeat with dub, electronica, hip- hop or dance styles, and constantly exploring new projects, several of which involved his friend Damon Albarn. As Allen told me: “I just don’t want to be stagnant and bored. You can’t keep doing the same things.”
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, he became a musician despite much opposition from his Nigerian father, James Alabi Allen, a motor mechanic, and Ghanaian mother, Prudentia (nee Mettle), because, as he once explained, “back then, musicians were more or less thought of as beggars, or worse”.
He took up a position as a radio technician, but at night he was playing the claves with a highlife band, Sir Victor Olaiya and the Cool Cats. “It was tedious,” he said. “For three months I would finish playing and then go to work – so I was sleeping at work.”
He longed to be a drummer, and when the band’s drummer left, he had his chance “and that was it”.
He was a huge admirer of the great American jazz drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, but was determined to create his own style. “From the beginning I was searching for my own way of playing. My beats are my beats. I never learned them from anywhere. I create them.”
He developed his style while playing with a series of highlife bands, and in 1964 he was invited to an audition by Fela, a fellow jazz fan who had been studying in London. They began playing together in the Koola Lobitos, a band that fused jazz and highlife, with the music driven by Allen’s innovative drum patterns. After touring the US they added funk to the mix and Fela began writing increasingly angry and political lyrics. Afrobeat was born.
Fela now named the band Africa 70, and Allen, who Fela said “sounded like four drummers”, was their musical director. Whether he was drumming for hours at Fela’s all-night shows at his club, The Shrine, or performing on Africa 70’s stream of classic albums, including Roforofo Fight, Yellow Fever and Kalakuta Show, he was crucial to their success.
One of Allen’s earliest and most devoted British fans was the musician and producer Brian Eno, who called him “perhaps the best drummer in the world”. He first heard his playing when he bought the Afrodisiac album (1973) “because I had never heard an African big band. I took the record home and was bowled over, and it was a while before it became clear that what was at the centre of it was Tony Allen’s drumming. I told everyone ‘You have to listen to this drummer, this is something completely new in music.’”
Allen quit the band in late 1978, angry at Fela’s increasingly chaotic lifestyle and lack of organisation, and deciding that “two captains can’t be in one ship”. He had already recorded a series of solo albums with help from Fela and Africa 70, but now he formed Afrobeat bands of his own, including the Afro Messengers, with whom he recorded No Discrimination (1979).
In 1984 he left Lagos for London, where he recorded N.E.P.A. (Never Expect Power Always), a sardonic comment on the erratic power supplies of the Nigerian National Electric Power Authority, and played with King Sunny Ade, the finest exponent of Nigerian juju styles. But Allen decided to leave Britain “because the Home Office wouldn’t give me a work permit … it was dangerous for me to stay here”.
He moved to Paris at the end of 1985, helped by the producer Martin Meissonnier, “who arranged French papers and a contract with Barclay Records”. It would be his base for the rest of his life, and he became a French citizen with French and Nigerian passports.
The 80s proved to be a difficult period for Allen. In a Guardian interview in 2016 he described his four-year reliance on heroin. But by the 90s his life had dramatically changed for the better. Afrobeat had acquired a global popularity, and after Fela’s death in 1997 Allen was seen as the music’s torchbearer, just as he was demonstrating his enthusiasm for embracing new styles.
His 1999 album Black Voices, produced by the DJ Doctor L, mixed Afrobeat with dub and electronica, and helped Allen win over a new young following. He was helped by Albarn, who sang “Tony Allen … really got me dancing”, on the 2000 Blur hit Music Is My Radar. Allen returned the compliment when he invited Albarn (along with the rapper Ty) to appear on his album Home Cooking (2002).
Allen continued to collaborate with Albarn for the rest of his life. In 2006 he joined Albarn in The Good, the Bad & the Queen, the band that also included Paul Simonon of the Clash, and played on their eponymous debut album (2007) and Merrie Land (2018).
When in 2007 Albarn launched his Africa Express project, bringing western and African musicians together to play at Glastonbury, Allen transformed the show, forcing the DJ Fatboy Slim to make one of his shortest appearances. When he began playing a Fela track, Allen joined in, playing live, joined by Albarn, Baaba Maal and others and the set was transformed into a glorious jam session.
The following year Africa Express were in Lagos, where Allen played with Fela’s son Femi, along with Albarn and Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and in 2012 he was part of the Africa Express team that travelled around Britain by train, performing along the route.
He was always keen to experiment and collaborate, recording with both veteran musicians and those just starting out in Nigeria on Lagos No Shaking (2006), or exploring his early jazz influences with his Tribute to Art Blakey (2017), His collaborations included work with Grace Jones, Charlotte Gainsbourg and the French trio The JazzBastards.
After finishing his tour promoting Rejoice, he had planned to record with young musicians in Nigeria, Paris, London and the US “because I want to take care of youngsters – they have messages and I want to bring them on my beat”.
And there were to be more recordings with Albarn. While he was in London in March Allen played on a new song, How Far?, by Albarn’s band Gorillaz, which has been released as a tribute. Albarn recalled Allen as having “magic in his feet and hands, joy in his heart, and genius in his mind”.
In 1987 Allen married his second wife, Sylvie Nicollet. She survives him along with their three sons, and four children from his first marriage.
• Tony Oladipo Allen, drummer and composer, born 12 August 1940; died 30 April 2020