Published May 06, 2010Drummer Tony Allen continues to be at the forefront of Afrobeat after he helped invent the genre some 40 years ago. He is equally well known for his innovative solo recordings and eclectic collaborations as for his leadership of Fela Kuti's Africa 70 from 1969 to '79. His style mixes profoundly jazzy funk with Nigerian influences. Watching him play, it seems as though all four limbs operate independently of one another yet somehow loosely sync up into an inimitable groove: kids, don't try this on your drum machines at home. As Afrobeat continues to find new audiences in the world, Allen is often the ambassador of the music to parts unknown. His new disc is entitled Secret Agent, his first for the acclaimed World Circuit label.
It's been a while since you produced an album for yourself. Was it important to do so this time out?
I think so. If I do it on my own I would reach what I want to reach. I've been in Europe for a long time and I've [worked with] a lot of producers, so everything that comes out is through the producers mind. It's my music but I wouldn't like to have the finished product that way ― sometimes. Well, it's OK. When they spend money, it's they who dictate the tune. So this time around, I just want to do it my way first.
Well you've done a lot of collaborations in the last little while.
Ha! Yes, collaborations, I never stop doing collaborations.
How would you describe this album in contrast to your last album with Jimi Tenor (Inspiration Information 4, 2009, Strut)?
As I said, collaboration is my thing, I like to collaborate with others even if the music is not my style. As a musician, and as a drummer that's flexible, I think it's good to have all these collaborations. One could be bored doing the same thing all by himself. There's no kicks there anymore.
When you left Fela in the late '70s did you feel the band was starting to repeat itself?
Of course yes. I left Fela cause I'd had enough. I had my own ideas of what I wanted my music to sound like. But Fela would not do that when he was producing my albums. If I had an idea, he would say "no, no, no don't do it. If you put that there it will make you look like you are going a different way." So I succumbed to that because he was producing it.
As the centre of the rhythm, how would you describe your role in Africa 70, and did Fela see it the same way?
Fela made me who I am. He was the challenge I was looking for, because I didn't want to play the same beat every day. When Fela started to write, I could relate to it because it wasn't just simple boom, boom, boom.
Do you think his music was less interesting after you left the band?
Well, that's what people say. It's like removing the gearbox from the engine from the car. But… no comment.
You went to Europe in the 80s when there was a big explosion of interest in African music. Tell me about those days.
When I arrived here there was African music all over the place. Fela was coming from Nigeria to Europe all the time; he was coming with [son] Femi [who was still in Fela's band] at that time. But everything changed when the politics changed. But not for me, I still live here.
There was a ten-year gap in your recorded output until Black Voices (1999, Comet Records), which was an amazing album. Can you tell me about it?
With Afrobeat Express (1989, Cobalt), I couldn't finish it properly, I had to collaborate with my producer. That fucked me up, so after that I took a long break from recording and just played live. Then I did Black Voices, and there was an issue with how it was recorded [versus] how it ended up. There are two albums on one CD now [Black Voices Revisited, Comet, 2010], both [versions] are there: what it became, and what it was to be. So you'll know what I'm talking about with the producer's hands. It was very evident.
Well it was always evident that it was a heavily produced album but ever since I've been listening to your music on records like Never Expect Power Always (Moving Target, 1985) there's always been a lot of electronics and dub so it sounded like an extension of that stuff.
That was my production. I was in Europe, and I wanted to go my own way. I started [my recording career post-Fela] with No Discrimination (1979, Shanu Olu) in Lagos. It was four tracks [on the album], which was very rare for Afrobeat, which is usually two tracks. I started doing music the way I feel it. I write like a drummer, not like a horn man or a guitarist. Because everything comes from my drums. Before I start writing anything, it's my drums first. There are a lot of patterns on my albums that I never played with Fela.
Afrobeat has certainly spread in popularity. Do you think that certain bands around the world have created their own thing, or is today's music fundamentally not as good as Nigerian Afrobeat of the 70s?
It's like this. When Bob Marley played reggae, everyone started to play reggae but with their own different directions. Afrobeat is all over the world today, everybody is playing it, in Japan, wherever. They call it Afrobeat, but the problem for everyone is the drums. Afrobeat, the way I describe it, is not one particular pattern. You have various patterns. But all the people who are playing today, I'm happy for that because this is how it will spread like reggae and funk and all that stuff before. There is Afrodizz in Canada, yes? They are very good. I met a band in Japan five years ago, they were a rock band when they opened for me. Two years later, this band was playing strictly Afrobeat, no rock, and they opened for me again. I was happy to see that!
Because you've worked with a lot of electronics and dub, do you think these bands have picked up on that aspect of your work?
If they want to play Afrobeat they have to play real instrument. I'm not buying this machine business, programming the patterns and things. When they program it, sometimes they don't know where to place the beats right. It's useless, better they learn how to play the drums, and play properly.
Has your approach to drumming, either in terms of technique or kit setup changed over the years?
No. the same. I never used too many drums ― two cymbals, one ride, one crash and my hi-hat. Bass drum, floor tom, that's all.
You've been able to adapt your drumming style to many situations over the last ten years especially. How did you get together with Damon Albarn to do the Good the Bad and the Queen?
Well Damon already sang my name on his own album [the song "Music Is My Radar"] and I invited him to sing on my album Home Cooking (2003, Wrasse) and he did. It started there, and we had to end up with something later.
It must have been a really challenging experience
That's why I say I'm flexible. People ask me "Tony, how can you deal with this type of music that Damon does?" Why can't I? We look forward to doing it sometime again. Maybe not the Good the Bad and the Queen, but it's going to be Tony and Damon.