I Used to Know 3 Allens, Including Tony

Tony Allen

By Odolaye Aremu

I grew up in the best city in the world, (argue that if you like with geography). Growing up in Ibadan, I remember about three Allens. There was J.Allen- a popular Bus Stop near Dugbe. There was a Baba Allen – a Mafiosi-looking Ibadan legend at Oke-Ado who smoked fat cigars till the day he died and there was Tony Allen, with whom Fela created what is now known around the world as the Afrobeat.

Fela undoubtedly was the enigmatic genius, however Tony Allen was the percussive power behind the Afro that gave the world the scintillatingly-smooth beat. He was exactly to Afrobeat what Clyde Stubblefield was to Funk. Never altogether a power or a ferocious drummer in the mold of a Buddy Rich or Keith Moon, but what Allen lacked in power, he overcompensated in his signature “shower and hiss” style. He was more into hard rhythm- like an instinctive African drummer who goes about in the marketplace with a drum decorated with functioning miniature cymbals. And like the traveling drummer, he wanted his sound squeezed from everywhere!

Hard to explain his magnificence to a listener who lacks the temerity to immaculately sift sound from sound. He was the first drummer I noted with the frequent use of the hi-hats to keep the drums idle. A foot perpetually stayed on the hi-hats pedal. He surrounded his plates of drums with acoustic sounds like gongs, Ikengas and cowbell to fill up the sound space. He was laid back yet amazingly ‘multiple.’ He played as if the band featured more than a drummer. Sad for all the drummers that came after Tony upon his departure from the Africa 70 band. Never lacking talent, except the fact that none of them could deaden the stench of Allen’s humongous shit. The great Ginger Baker managed it in “Yeye Dey Smell” yet he couldn’t vanquish him altogether and that’s considering a fact that he- Ginger was a power drummer. Tony simply was the drummer of an utmost awkward timing. Cool as a gorgeous cat in dark glasses, in those days as he sat high up on his rhythm throne in the far, shadowy back. I especially love Tony in Fela’s “Open And Close!” The man kept an amazing time on that track! 

I watched a video of the drum battle between Tony and Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie (The world’s most recorded drummer) last year and I had a profound feeling Tony was about packing up. He was approaching his end. And about last week I had a discussion centered around him with a musically-inclined friend too. The feeling again awashed me, albeit procrastination is a clever thief- but not this time around. I had been ready with a tribute for about a year now. Therefore I wasn’t all too surprised when I heard the news yesterday. It now suddenly happens that I used to know three Allens!