Music

Tony Allen: Secret Agent

If drums were pens he'd be writing political mystery thrillers.


Tony Allen

Secret Agent

Label: World Circuit
US Release Date: Import
UK Release Date: 2009-06-08
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.

Film

A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.

Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

'Avengers: Endgame' Faces the Other Side of Loss

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our pandemic grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.