Tony Allen, who drummed his way out of Lagos, Nigeria, with Fela Kuti to become an architect of the Afro-beat sound, has died. Allen’s work on percussion starting in the mid-1960s set in motion a seemingly endless rhythm that first upended a city, then a continent and, finally, the world.
Allen’s death Wednesday in his longtime home of Paris was announced by Rikki Stein, who represents the Kuti estate. No cause of death was given.
United as post-Colonial strife was consuming their country, Kuti and Allen’s early work drew on the country’s pop music of the time, called high life. But, as retold in the hit Broadway musical Fela! during a visit to Los Angeles in 1969, Kuti, Allen and the rest of the band converged with area Black Panthers through activist Sandra Isadore. Emboldened, the band returned to Lagos and energized the country with combative, Allen-propelled drum riots.
Although forever connected to Kuti’s projects, most notably Africa 70, Allen’s percussion work continued to evolve after he left Kuti’s circle in the early 1980s. Teaming with the New York/Paris imprint Celluloid, Allen beefed up his bottom-end tones, pushed up the levels on the recording mikes closest to his kit to make sounds informed by the hip-hop fueled 1980s. He continued to embrace any style that needed a beat, including techno and house music. Last month he and the late South African band leader Hugh Masekela, who died in 2018, released a new album called “Rejoice.”
Among others, across his life Allen worked with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Angelique Kidju, Malian singer Oumou Sangare and Detroit techno producer Jeff Mills. Starting in the mid-2000s, Allen began an extended collaboration with Blur singer Damon Albarn, with whom he formed a supergroup called the Good, the Bad and the Queen. A few years later, he and Albarn joined Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea to form Rocket Juice and the Moon.
Born in Lagos in 1940 – he never provided an exact birthdate – Allen’s rhythmic journey began as if with his first heartbeat. Becoming obsessed with American jazz and Nigerian juju music, a teenage Allen started playing with a series of small bands, including the African calypso band Agu Norris & the Heatwaves, before being hired by Kuti in 1964.
The two forged a musical bond that drove Kuti’s band to international fame. The politically-minded Kuti channeled his voice and words to foment political change. As he did so, Allen drove a rhythm section that he controlled. His creative power and vision ultimately drove a wedge between him and his collaborative partner; it was Allen’s beat, but Kuti was getting all the royalties.
After striking out on his own, Allen became the only Kuti collaborator to maintain the public’s attention. Even as Kuti’s sons Femi and Seun forged new sounds based on their father’s vibrations, Allen insistently kept his sticks at the ready. Once moving, they tapped out immediately identifiable beats.
Asked by British publication the Quietus about his influence, Allen said, “Afrobeat has many different grooves. Afrobeat is not actually one particular beat. What I am doing when I am playing, is I am creating patterns.”
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