[14 November 2013]
Lately it seems that many of the world’s great percussionists are finally getting the attention and recognition they deserve. From the excellent new documentaries on Ginger Baker and Levon Helm, to Tony Allen’s recently released autobiography, Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat, it seems that music fans are finally beginning to wake up and realize how crucial a great drummer is to a great band. Cream wouldn’t have been Cream without Baker. The Band would not have been the Band without Helm.
And, as was plain to see upon his departure from Fela Kuti & the Africa 70 in 1978, Allen was essential to Fela’s iconic sound. Kuti made several great records following Allen’s absence, but these records noticeably lacked the virtuosic, yet understated touch of the master drummer of Afrobeat. In Allen’s new autobiography, co-written with Michael E. Veal (author of Fela: The Life and Times of a Musical Icon) we get a glimpse into the life and times of the man behind the kit, as well as fascinating insights into the tumultuous rise of Fela Kuti & the Afrika 70 to superstardom.
Aside from Veal’s adulatory introduction, Tony Allen is informal, highly conversational, and for the most part engaging, though Allen’s frequent digressions are occasionally confusing for the reader trying to piece together the larger picture. One thing is clear, however; from humble beginnings in Lagos with uncommonly supportive parents, to his triumphs with Kuti in the studio and on the international stage, to later life in France as the elder statesman of Afrobeat, Allen has always carried himself with a quiet confidence far more valuable than any lavish praise from music fans. It may have taken the world several decades to properly acknowledge his contributions to music, but Allen doesn’t seem to need anyone’s recognition, in stark contrast to Kuti, for whom the quest for respect and recognition seemed to be almost compulsive.
There are several entertaining passages that reveal the tension between Allen and Kuti during Afrika 70’s ascendancy to superstardom. One particularly memorable passage details the bandmates’ quarrels over groupies:
... The truth is all this bullshit happened because of the girls around. It was just a question of me screwing one girl that was his favorite. But nothing stopped him from screwing that girl also, as she lived in his house. So who was the master—was [Fela] not? If the girl followed me, it was because she wanted to… Why was [Fela] making a problem with me?... He gave it to me properly in front of that girl so that she would know that he was the boss. Which everybody already knew, anyway.
There is an air of slight bitterness surrounding Allen’s description of Kuti throughout the autobiography, and who can blame him: Kuti’s megalomaniacal genius and shady business ethics would have made any associated musician frustrated. Still, the immense strength of Kuti’s personality could not suppress Allen’s, and it becomes evident in Tony Allen that Allen has always been his own “boss”.
Any fan of Afrobeat knows the incredible debt the genre owes to Allen, but some fail to recognize the drummer’s influence in rock, pop, and beyond: Paul McCartney, 2uestlove, and Brian Eno are just a few contemporary titans who sing Allen’s praises, and recognize his innovation behind the kit. In the ‘50s Nigeria drum kits were rare; even rarer were Nigerians who knew what to do with them. Aside from a few brief mentorships with his new instrument in his adolescence, Allen has been teaching himself percussion for the better part of 70 years, never ceasing to develop and refine his style even as his ability has become known and celebrated throughout the world. Truly, this is the mark of a genius; that rare artist who never ceases exploring, refining, and challenging himself to take daring and uncomfortable risks with his craft.
It’s challenging to select only one performance to exemplify Allen’s talent; even limiting myself to five or ten choices seems to be doing the drummer an injustice. The truth is that Allen has been remarkably, consistently great for nearly half a century. I can still recall the first time I heard him play: as a lover of rhythm and percussionist myself, I was forever changed when I first experienced the force of Allen’s artistry in the 1977 classic, “Opposite People”. This is music that is nearly impossible to listen to and remain sitting still; Allen basically forces you to move.
After decades of being underpaid and underappreciated for his contributions with Kuti and beyond, it’s satisfying to see Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat in print. Drummers, fans of African music, and lovers of music more generally will find a lot to love in this book.