[5 August 2009]
Tony Allen’s art is that of the long tease. We’re a full minute into the first track of this album before he decides to open his mouth, and when he does he murmurs enigmatically, “From the east, from the west, from the south, to the north”, before pausing with an amused groan, as if to say: “You know you want more, but that’s all you’re getting. Will I continue or won’t I? You’ll have to wait to find out.” With that accomplished, he goes on.
This, you might feel, listening to his unhurried voice, is a man who has decided that no one is going to push him into anything. He’ll take his time. You can even, faintly, hear the wet platch when he moistens his mouth with his tongue, or it might be his lips unsticking. The beauty of this voice, of this music, of his drumming, lies in the alert languor of it, the sound of a man in control. He lets us know what’s what, or at least what he believes is what. At all these points of the compass live “the same people”, he says. You can eat with them and walk with them, you can “do everything together”. He didn’t always know this. He used to worry about these people. Now he knows better. After five minutes and 20 seconds, the song ends.
Allen’s international reputation has its roots in a partnership with Fela Kuti that lasted from 1968 to 1979. Kuti was the frontman, the singer: Allen was the percussionist, the man keeping time, “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived,” according to Brian Eno. Allen’s lyrics address some of the same problems that Kuti dealt with, but the difference lies, I think, in this suggestion of fallibility, in the wry “Hah” that he emits when he’s talking about the difference between his old attitude and his new one. He used to think one way, now he knows better. He’s not strident in the Kuti style. His drumming is highly skilled, flexible, tense, but unobtrusive. His songs battle back and forth between openness and reserve. “Don’t take my kindness for weakness”, he sang in his 2006 track, “Kindness”, and this has to be the ultimate Tony Allen lyric, willing to give, but wanting you to know that he knows where to draw the line: generous, maybe, but not a fool. A logical outcome, you might think, when a man comes from a country whose government is rotten with corruption and is not above torturing its opponents, as he suggests in “Pariwo”.
The battle between openness and its opposite is there in the sound of the music itself. The trumpet in “Elewon Po” steals out, rouses itself, carols briefly, then cuts itself off again—sounding, like Allen at the start, as if it’s got more to say but will wait until it’s good and ready before it says it. There’s something slyly obstreperous in this: I’ll do what I like, you can’t make me play if I don’t want to. At the same time the drum kit struts on, giving away music with an open hand. The musicians let us know that there’s plenty of music to be had, plenty of music in reserve, and that they’re going to let it loose as it suits them. This is the tease. This is the push-pull, the Afrobeat/funk drama, the tone of the story. If drums were pens he’d be writing political mystery thrillers.