How Fela’s drummer, Tony Allen, died

Tony Allen

Tony Allen

…His life and times


By Nehru Odeh

He was Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s right hand man. But there was no distinguishing him and his beats. But Tony Allen, the legendary drummer who is credited with creating Afrobeat with Fela, has passed on at 79. Allen’s manager confirmed that he died in Paris earlier today of an abdominal aortic aneurysm.  Allen was such a huge influence on Afrobeat that by the time he exited Fela’s band, he needed four drummers to replace him.

Since the news of his death broke, his friends and colleagues from across the globe have been reacting and paying glowing tributes to him. Sandra Izsadore said on her Facebook page, “I am devastated by this loss. I just spoke with Tony and reached out to him today when his manager called me an hour later to tell me that Tony has transcended. May he rest in peace.”

The British musician and producer Brian Eno said Allen was “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived”.

The rapper Biz Markie described him as “an all-time titan spanning continents, eras, and sounds. He didn’t just invent new pockets, he was a sorcerer who fundamentally and effortlessly redefined rhythm.”

Flea said:  “The epic Tony Allen, the greatest drummer on earth has left us. What a wild man with a massive, kind and free heart and the deepest one-of-a-kind groove. Fela Kuti did not invent afrobeat, Fela and Tony birthed it.”

Major Lazer described Allen as the GOAT amongst GOATS and the inventor o rhythm. “Do your reseach. Legends never die,” he said.

In a roller coaster career spanning more than 50 years, Allen, who was born in Lagos in 1940, took Afrobeat to such great heights that  it went on to become one of the totemic genres of 20th century African music. Allen, who taught himself how to play the  drum started  playing a drum kit at 18, while working as an engineer for a Nigerian radio station and was influenced by  juju music, which his father listened to while growing up. He later developed a huge interest in American jazz and the growing highlife scene in Nigeria and Ghana.

In an interview with The Wire, Allen discussed how he found his own style of playing and developed the Afrobeat sound while studying the work of his favorite drummers.

“I was listening to a lot of jazz. I was listening to Blue Note records, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, listening to many of these drummers. Gene Krupa was the first one—though he was not playing the same style like them there, you know? But watching drummers playing in my country, I knew that something was wrong somewhere. Why is it that they don’t use their hi-hats? It’s there, it’s always there, but it’s closed, they don’t use it—well, they used it, but that thing has a pedal, you know? I felt that this thing should be like riding a bicycle—you have good legs, you have pedals, you need to put [your feet] on both pedals to make you move.”

Allen perfected the art of playing both highlife and jazz, a rare combination at the time, that by the time he met the Afrobeat King, Fela, he was carried away by Allen’s dexterity, even though they had played together as sidemen in the Lagos circuit. Before Allen joined Fela he  had played claves wih Sir Victor Olaiya’s highlife band, the Cool Cats as well as with Agu Norris  and the Heatwaves, the Nigerian musicians  and the Melody Makers.

In 1964, when Fela invited Allen to audition for the jazz-highlife band he was forming, he complimented Allen’s unique sound: “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?” Thus Allen became an original member of Fela’s “Koola Lobitos” highlife-jazz band. However In 1969, following an educational trip to the United States, where he met Sandra Izsadore (a huge influence on him), Fela and the newly renamed Africa ’70 band developed a new kind of sound called Afrobeat, mixing the heavy groove and universal appeal of soul with jazz, highlife, and the polyrhythmic template of Yoruba conventions.

Allen once recounted how he and Fela wrote in 1970: “Fela used to write out the parts for all the musicians in the band (Africa ’70). I was the only one who originated the music I played. Fela would ask what type of rhythm I wanted to play.… You can tell a good drummer because we… have four limbs… and they are… playing different things… the patterns don’t just come from Yoruba… but other parts of Nigeria and Africa.”

However, having recorded more than 40 albums with Fela, their relationship started getting sour in the late 1970s over royalties/remunerations and recognition. As inventor of the rhythms that underpinned Afrobeat and musical director, Allen felt especially slighted. Fela stood his ground, stating that he would get the royalties for his songs. Fela did support Allen’s three solo recordings: Jealousy (’75), Progress (’77), No Accommodation For Lagos (’79), but by 1979, Allen chose to leave Africa ’70, taking many members with him.

“‘What makes me decide it’s time to go? It’s … everything…and (his) carelessness…like he doesn’t care, like he doesn’t know …he doesn’t feel he’s done anything (wrong). And with all the parasites around too…. there were 71 people on tour by now and only 30 working in the band….you got to ask why. 

Those guys were sapping Fela of his Force, of his Music.’ So Tony moved on, once again in search of his own sound.”

But Tony Allen’s exit from Africa ’70, created a huge vacuum that Fela needed four drummers to replace him. Allen then started his own band in Lagos before relocating to Paris France, where he later played alongside musical greats like Manu Dibango, Angelique Kidjo and Hugh Masekela.