In a world where everything’s tailored to make us believe the last one who spoke is right, time stands as the most precious indicator. No less than 40 years (50 by the time writing these lines!) have seen Tony Allen searching to find the right measure along his unceasing explorations. Meeting with the one who, while punctuating the late Fela‘s grooves along with his jerky pulsations, would give birth to Afrobeat…
“…To the one you feel in the metronome of your mind, Does it offend you that our rhythm looks strange, Or causes you thinking to be re-arranged?
Could it be that you would understand those beat to which we dance, More clearly had you been given the chance? So as you struggle to find the feel with your feet, Ask yourself… can you dance to my beat?” (Blaze feat. Palmer Brown – ‘My Beat’)
Only time speaks… A reality that we’d most likely tend to forget in a period seeing us in to be the prey of so many different appeals, hostages that we are of a consumption system using anything to get us playing its game. A period whereas the artifice, the transient and the ersatz often get the upper hand on talent. “Should a young drummer get the A point, and he figures he could reach the Z one without transition”, explains Tony. “It doesn’t work like this and will never do so. Nothing could ever replace work. Of course, there’s the aptitude and the fact that we may feel good, but the final result – in other words, the natural and effortless feeling we may spread while playing with our instrument is the result of a long learning process that sees us coming through various periods of doubts, when not rejection!”
Fela, who he’s been collaborating and touring with for so long used to have an immediate understanding of the situations, he explains. “He could be a leader of course, but also a straight fellow man whenever necessary. He was unique, even during the periods that saw him taken into addictions. Never had to complain about him, as long as everything was cool on my side, knowing that I just had to take my distance whenever it was not the case…”
“We met by the time he got back home in 1964. He was supposed to do a Jazz show on the radio and was lookin’ for a (good) drummer to do live sessions. He’d already auditionned a few with no significant appeal to him. Meanwhile I was playin’ with steady groups at the time. Someone came to tell me Fela wanted to see me. I said: “What for? To be playin’ with him?” I said that’s fine with me as long as it’s not at nights. We then met at the radio station and he said: “So that’s you, Tony Allen? I’ve been said you’re a good drummer.” I said: Looks like! He said: “Do you play Jazz?” I responded by the affirmative before getting myself at the drums. A few seconds after I started, he said: “Okay, that’s fine with me!””
One would have to wait for another bit though before seeing the birth of Afrobeat… “Fela had booked me in order to play Jazz classics”, he explains. “Let’s never forget that he was originally a Jazz musician and he felt like obliged to play so for the Nigerian crowd. Classic Jazz was good for American people, but not for the Africans. This is how we started incoporating elements from the West Coast (in the vein of the famous Makossa such as integrated by Manu Dibango). What used to be called High-Life Jazz back then. Then, 4 years later, while we were in Ghana, a promoter came at us with the idea of Afrobeat to put a name to our music, and the rest is history…” But what is Afrobeat?
Bass is the heart and percussions are the brain, people tend to say in Africa. “Very much true. Whenever playing my patterns, it’s in a very syncopated way. It’s like a four-piece orchestra. Four members for four limbs totally independent from each other! Just the result of work”, he smiles. “It’s a continuous challenge, but this is what gives me the will to always get further way. It has been a real nightmare at the beginning, but I’ve managed to make my way and progress. I hate the feeling of stagnation. If I write my partitions? Never, I have them like in head. I don’t believe in written partitions as far as drumming is concerned, unless being destined to be used as a memo, but I don’t react like that. Everything’s built around the kick, and there must be a groove. I mean something to get you into a trance. I eventually would like to be alone on stage with a programmer. This would be the way to give the crowd a more precise idea as to what I’m doin’.”
Tony also had his own life as a musician and eventually a leader, with inevitable ups and downs, like the ‘Afro Beat Express’ album he recorded with Cobalt. “I realized I didn’t like this music (my music) by the time we ended up recording it”, he explains. “Why? Because of the production”, coming into a 10 year hiatus that would see him resurfacing on French label Comet Records. “It took a bit of time to get on together. Simply because not everybody can deal with Afrobeat. You gotta understand the foundations that bring to its elaboration. You gotta know what you want and where you want to go, which is never easy to achieve for reputedly non musicians in the live sense of the term. I never learnt myself, following any academic way, apart from the basic elements which I’ve used to evolve and create my own style, with the help of the Creator. Could have been with a guitar alongside my dad, but I didn’t like it. No more than with a sax or a double-bass which I never felt good using. As for piano, it’s a different thing, as the instrument I’m using to write my music…”
“I’m always searching for themes lyrically speaking, expect subjects related with love which I’m not interested in on a personal level, unless being for a guest. I’m not neither into like politically engaged things, like Fela or Femi.
I’ve been with Fela for 15 years, which means that I know what it is, but I never tried/wanted to copy him. I never covered any song of his and would never see myself doin’ so. Each of us had his own approach. I’ve recorded 3 albums with Africa 70 (his group) that he’s produced. Not because I ever wanted to stand apart, but because the state of mind was different. And if ever we’ve been staying together for so long, it’s because we were willing to share”, confirming the fact that Afrobeat can display different faces, as compared to the conscious ones delivered by the Black President…