Tony Oladipo Allen, who died last year, was a legend of the drum kit, a musician that was never content to confine his playing to a single style.
He was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1940 and was a rule breaker right out of the gate. He never played African drums or percussion. Instead, he was fascinated by American jazz, and spent many hours absorbing the work of Art Blakey, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and other bebop heavies. He also came under the influence of Guy Warren (later known as Kofi Ghanaba), the drummer credited with creating Afro-jazz.
Allen taught himself how to play the Western drum kit, while working a day job at Nigerian National Radio. While working with several highlife bands, he met Fela Kuti, who recruited him for the group that would become Africa 70, perhaps the most innovative and successful African band of its time. Kuti had visited the United States. When he heard James Brown and His Famous Flames, he recognized the African roots of funk, soul and R&B. He decided to add those American elements to the music he was composing for Africa 70. Allen’s drumming was the backbone of the band and helped make them an international sensation.
Artist: Tony Allen
Album: There Is No End
Label: Blue Note Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
After playing with Kuti for 11 years, and cutting more than 30 albums with Africa 70, he left to start his own band. Later on, he moved to Paris where he worked with King Sunny Adé, Ray Lema and Manu Dibango. He continued to expand his horizons, fusing his Afrobeat grooves with rap, dub reggae and electronic beats. In the years since, he cut almost two-dozen albums, while contributing his chops to projects by a diverse range of artists: Baaba Maal, Paul Simon, Charlotte Gainsbroug, Zap Mama, Oumou Sangaré, Hugh Masekela and Gorillaz (in addition to two other Damon Albarn-led supergroups in The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Rocketjuice and the Moon).
Allen began working on There Is No End, his last recorded work, in 2019. His intent was to collaborate with the current generation of rappers, helping them find an outlet for their voices. His idea was to create another hybrid – a blend of Afrobeat and hip-hop. He composed the rhythm tracks for the album with the help of his co-producers, Vincent Taeger and Vincent Taurelle.
These 14 tracks feature a wide rage of known and up and coming artists, ornamenting Allen’s inventive rhythmic tracks with lyrics that dance around, and in and out of his relentless grooves. London based Kenyan rapper, Nah Eeto is a model, videographer, singer and rapper. Her lyrics on “Mau Mau,” reference the 1952 uprising against British colonial rulers, with an instantly memorable refrain. It’s also a put down of an overly aggressive suitor, driven by a propulsive bass line. “Crushed Grapes” features South Carolina’s Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon, turning in a performance that was improvised in the studio over a slow, ambient pulse. British rapper Skepta and Nigerian poet Ben Okri share the vocals on “Cosmosis.” Okri talks about the fragility of human existence and surviving the unspoken war between rich and poor, black and white, spirituality and sensuality. Skepta chimes in with a rap describing a woman who gave him the courage to accept himself, despite his limitations.
“One in a Million” rides an Afrobeat rhythm that harks back to Allen’s work with Fela Kuti. Lava La Rue, a rapper based in West London, sings Allen’s praises, alternating between breathy vocals and a confessional autobiographical flow.
The 12 guests on the album, including such prominent names as Koreatown Oddity, Sampa The Great and Danny Brown, slip seamlessly into Allen’s percolating rhythms, fulfilling his dream for an innovative blend of rap and Afrobeat. Allen passed away last April, but the rhythms he created will have people dancing for ages to come.