A conversation with the father of Afrobeat: Tony Allen

Words: Zak Annette

Celebrated painters are often known for an instantly recognisable style. The same can be said for the greatest musicians. This is certainly the case for Tony Allen. A master drummer, composer and songwriter, he’s also in the rare position of being able to boast that he invented a whole genre. And as if that’s not enough, Brian Eno famously accused him of being “the greatest drummer who has ever lived”. He’s pretty good, in other words.

But what makes these rhythms so distinctive?  “I like my drums to be singing like a song, like a piano. I can play them together to make them sound like chords. That’s the way I want my drums to sound” he muses.

We had the pleasure of meeting him at the Cumberland hotel (Marble Arch) for a convivial hour of discourse ranging from post-colonial Nigeria, the tedium of being a musical icon and of course; Damon Albarn.

In previous interviews you’ve mentioned classic West African rhythmic styles and drummers like Art Blakey and Max Roach, as early influences.  Do they still inform your approach to your work?

Most of those influences you talk about are coming from the past, they are the standard, for everybody, you know. But for me, I have done it, I’ve done that style, I don’t want to be a jazz drummer because there’s nothing for me to do there, it’s not creative enough for me. I don’t see my four limbs working. It’s not that I cannot play that level, I could, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I wasn’t satisfied as a drummer if I had to remain in this [one] field. I wanted to be extraordinary. So I had to create something that wasn’t there, that would be difficult for people to catch up with in the first place. I have been creating new patterns, patterns that are not written anywhere, my own creations and I write my music with it. But it’s just a question of believing in it and then progressing in it.

You have lived in Paris since the 80s. And new album, the The Source, is made up of entirely French musicians, bar Indy Dibongue from Cameroon who played guitar on the album. Has living in Europe all this time influenced your music?

Yes for sure, when I left Lagos, London came first. I was in London for 18 months. It wasn’t easy for me to get the shit I want, to get together, I couldn’t get it. It’s not easy to get a group going here. And that kind of environment is not conducive for me to be creative enough. But then you know, I just wanted to live somewhere where I’m legally living. Because all of the 18 months that I lived here – it was not legal. So then in France, they were waiting, they knew, they wanted me to come and do something there and they invited me from here with a contract of; ‘come to France with an exclusive contract with Barclay Records’ and I left. Personally I think it’s easier, I’m not even a Francophone, I’m an Anglophone, but it’s easier there. Even the Americans too, when they arrive in Paris, some of them, they decide to stay. But all those guys you mentioned in The Source album is like two thirds of my band – my regular musicians.


Past works you have been involved in have been highly politicised. For instance, the album Confusion, released in 1975, was a critical commentary on the government of post-colonial Nigeria. Do you feel you helped to embolden a generation of musicians to be able to express political opinion in their music?

Yes, we have done enough of that, challenging the politics, challenging the government. Fela and I have done enough of that,  I mean it’s happening right now. Everyone has something to say because it’s current events right now. [The elections will take place in Nigeria in 2018]. So if they [musicians] can use the same way to project their message through to government, (he smiles ) well, I don’t see anything wrong about that.

How do you feel the political climate has changed in respect to being able to express discontent with the government compared to the hardships you faced when releasing your work in a post-colonial Nigeria?

Them man aren’t gonna face that. I’m sure the present government don’t give a shit about anything you know. They don’t care about who or whatever he’s saying. They don’t respond to it. (He spreads his hands) Well, I just wish them good luck, if they can break through. But for now, I’m not sure they’re going to take it so seriously as with me and Fela, it was more dangerous to open your mouth.

You’ve worked with a wide variety of artists and music; Damon Albarn (who features on the new album), Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the French electronic duo Air, Jeff Mills, and very recently, Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, to name a few. What is your approach when working in collaboration with another artist?

I never look for them. When they come to me it means that they want something different, a particular something that nobody can give to them, except Tony Allen. So I try to augment what they’re doing, because nobody’s going to be playing what I’m going to be playing for them. [But] I always relate to their own composition, you know, it’s a question of being able to extract the drum’s movement from that music. Every music has the drums – innate already – so you just find a way to extract it. It’s not supposed to be the same way of drumming every time.

What does it feel like to be considered a musical icon and to be referenced as a role model by younger drummers?

I really don’t like commenting on myself. When they say ‘Tony’s great na na na’ – yeah ok great, but it doesn’t stop me – I’m not into that yet. I still look at myself as somebody who still has a lot to do (he smiles) because there are still other musicians around the world who want to work with Tony, you know , I’ve got to prepare for that. It’s a wall of challenge, you never know when it’s going to end – so as long as I’m into that, to follow up things, then I’ll just be humble. As far as I’m concerned I’m still learning.

What is your next project? Do you have any plans for new collaborations, or a new album? 

I will keep on going, now we’ve had A Tribute to Blakey and The Source – It might not be the same thing next time, you know, I always like to change. Three weeks ago I was here in London, for the whole week in the studio with Damon. Recording the second [album] with The Good, the Bad & the Queen – with the same guys. We’ve recorded for two years now. But it’s not finished yet – I think it’s going to be finished this year. That is going to be coming my way again, as soon as this album drops. So I’m going to come across that before my next album, because if I go rush to do another album right now (he stops and shakes his head). No, I cannot even, I at least have to give myself another two years gap to have any follow up with effect [to] The Source.


Tony Allen’s new album The Source, was released on September 8th and is available for download now.


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