The highly influential and iconic drummer Tony Allen, a man who alongside his fellow Nigerian musician Fela Kuti is credited with creating the Afrobeat genre – a unique fusion of African high-life, jazz and the more percussive rhythms of funk – passed away yesterday at the age of 79. It is understood that he died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm and that his death is not thought to be linked to the Coronavirus.
Tony Allen started drumming at the age of 18 but first came to major prominence after meeting Fela Kuti in the 1960s when his distinctive style helped define the sound of many subsequent Fela Kuti & Africa ’70 albums throughout the following decade. Allen recorded more than 30 albums with Fela Kuti and Africa ’70 during this period.
By the mid-1980s Tony Allen had moved to Paris – the French city where he lived right up until his death – and having by then recovered from heroin addiction he worked consistently throughout the 1990s as a session musician, playing on records by many different artists including Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Amina, and Manu Dibango.
During the last two decades Tony Allen became increasingly prolific as he sought to further diversify and develop the Afrobeat sound through collaborations with a wide range of musicians including Jùjú maestro King Sunny Adé, the British-Indian singer Susheela Raman, Anglo-French chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the dub-techno pioneer Moritz von Oswald. Allen also performed and recorded with Damon Albarn in Albarn’s so-called supergroup The Good, the Bad & the Queen.
At the time of seeing him perform at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds just over two years ago, Tony Allen had signed to Blue Note France – the French offshoot of the famous American jazz record label – indicating the drummer’s return to his jazz roots. And then only a few weeks ago he released Rejoice, a recording of Allen’s 2010 studio session with the legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela which documents their fantastic fusion of Afrobeat and jazz.
Speaking years ago about his own extraordinary, cross-rhythmic playing, Tony Allen said “A good drummer has two legs and two arms and they’re all playing different things.” Listening to his music the day after his sad passing it comes as little surprise to know that Damon Albarn and Brian Eno both described Tony Allen as perhaps the greatest drummer who had ever lived.
Photo credit: Simon Godley.
Photos of Tony Allen taken at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, England on 7th April 2018.
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