As the co-creator with Fela Kuti of the Afrobeat style that emerged from Nigeria in 1970, drummer and arranger Tony Allen is a deservedly legendary figure in popular music history. However, Allen is very much a figure of the present, as he continues to prove via recordings released under his own name and with the group responsible for The Good, The Bad & The Queen–featuring Allen, Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon, and Simon Tong. Secret Agent was released in Europe in 2009 to considerable acclaim and is now being given a North American release by Nonesuch prior to a string of dates that Allen and his band will undertake on the continent in June of this year.
This brilliant album showcases Allen’s distinctive drumming style and represents his considerable skills as a producer and arranger. He is accompanied by his touring group, a highly skilled octet whose instrumental palette mixes the expected (heavy bass, high electric guitar, horns) with the more surprising (accordion, Vocoder). Allen has written the music for all the tracks and some of the lyrics. Other lyrics are provided by the various vocalists featured on the album, some of whom double up on backing vocal duties. Vocal call-and-response is utilized fantastically throughout.
The opening title track sets up an immediately infectious groove via the use of funk guitar and keyboards. Allen’s regular guitarist, the Cameroonian Claude Dibongue, is joined by two other guitarists for this track, creating intricate polyrhythmic patterns alongside fluid solo runs. Allen starts off with a light touch on the drums, gaining more weight and momentum as the horns enter to lock the piece into an ever tighter groove. Allen himself takes the vocal on this track and the album closer, “Elewon Po” (a song protesting the number of political prisoners in Nigeria), having also written the lyrics for both. Female backing vocals are used sparingly but effectively on “Secret Agent”.
“It’s so hard to resist, it’s so hard to forget … Afrobeat”, sings Orobiyi Adunni (aka AYO) on “Ijo”, one of the four tracks on the album for which she provides lyrics and vocals. As if we hadn’t noticed during the song’s introduction, as Allen leads masterfully with the hi-hats, Dibongue and Seb Martel fabricate another itchy guitar backing, and the horns blast in signature Afrobeat style. “The rhythm of pleasure”, continues AYO in this paean to the musical style that defined her country, breaking her flow to deliver a vow of fidelity: “I do, I do, I do, do, do”. Following assertive acclaims from the chorus, the track makes space for some wild digressions on the keyboard by Allen’s co-producer and fellow arranger Fixi, the phasing seeming to transport the collective back to an era when this music was the main sound of resistance. It’s an audacious move, made more powerful by the subsequent departure from English in the chorus.
The two main themes performed by the horns on “Ijo” underline one of the key aspects of Allen’s music, as notable now as in his work with Fela Kuti in the 1970s. Clearly distinguishable but interdependent blocks of sound lock together in a manner that both highlights their individual identity and suggests unity in strength. As with the music of James Brown, with which Afrobeat has always been closely aligned, the pieces of the sonic jigsaw shine brightly when individuated, but become unstoppable when combined. This is as true for the ever-present scratchy guitars, Fixi’s impudent synths (isolated, “Ijo”‘s final few seconds sound as though they should be on a rave track), and, of course, Allen’s elliptically guiding percussion. “Fela wrote like a singer, I write like a drummer”, Allen is quoted as saying and he uses the elements of his arrangements and his musicians as skillfully as he deploys his kit.
Things take a mellower turn on “Switch”, featuring Bola Dumoye’s laconically delivered spoken lyrics. The backing vocalists provide one of the album’s most memorable choruses, Allen is on wonderful form throughout, and the electric guitar is searing in places. This track is essentially a jazz/hip-hop hybrid, a reminder of Allen’s and Fela Kuti’s roots in the American jazz tradition.
Nigerian singer/lyricist King Odudu contributes words and vocals to “Celebrate”, an invitation to the celebration of everyday life. Odudu’s delivery is closer to that of Fela than is Allen’s, making this a classic, “traditional” Afrobeat number. Bassist Rody Cereyon, from Martinique, is in fine form here. “Ayenlo”, another track from AYO, features an insistent, genre-defining electric guitar contribution from Dibongue that showcases that instrument’s use as a rhythmic device as well as any classic funk or metal number you care to name.
Fixi’s accordion can be heard at the outset of “Busybody”, a track delivered with all the verve of a soul or R&B diva by its lyricist, Kefee Obareki. The mixture of English and Orobu lyrics serves to make the song accessible to an international audience, even as it performs a vital linguistic territorialization.
The musicality of Allen’s drumming is displayed on “Pariwo”, featuring another vocal from King Odudu. Again, the ghost of Fela haunts proceedings as Odudu unravels his tale of immorality, repression, and resulting protest. As Chris May points out in the excellent liner notes that accompany this attractively packaged CD, “the problems facing Nigeria’s working and middle classes are perhaps even worse than they were in Kuti’s day”. The mournful horns and defiant vocals of “Pariwo” bear eloquent testimony to the complexity of emotions that result from such a situation.
Indeed, as all the tracks on this splendid album prove, voices will continue to be raised, instruments played, and resistance mounted. Politically, this music will continue to matter for as long as the evils to which it bears witness are maintained. Aesthetically, it is hard to see it ever ceasing to matter; rarely has a music of resistance been so musically irresistible. In more hopeful moments, such as those felt on hearing Secret Agent, one can imagine an end to the political project. But who would want the aesthetic one to end? “The musical world is very spiritual”, Allen is quoted as saying at the close of the liner notes, “and I don’t think there’s an end to it”.