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Friday, Sept. 22, 2006
Accolades for Afrobeat originator
By JEFF HAMMOND
Special to The Japan Times
Producer Brian Eno has been variously quoted as saying Nigerian drummer and songwriter Tony Allen is "the most important musician," or "the best drummer" of the last 50 years. Whatever Eno actually said there is no doubt of the high regard Allen is held in, not only for his rhythms, so tight and complex they make you think he must have the arms of an octopus, but because they laid the foundation of Afrobeat, the revolutionary Nigerian musical form he created with Fela Kuti in the 1960s.
Despite the electric live shows of his heyday, world recognition came slowly. The recorded output of Kuti and his band, Africa '70, which often consisted of 20-minute-long rhythm-driven tracks that lacked catchy choruses, were far from radio friendly. Outside of Africa, the music was at first the preserve of dedicated world-music fans, before there even was such a term. Eno, for instance, introduced Talking Heads to Allen's rhythms, helping to heighten the American band's funky grooves.
"The music was coming from a local place, a Third World country," Allen says on the phone from his home in Paris, "but the band was very unique. We played in the United States for 10 months [in 1969], but it took time for Europe and the world to really take up our music."
Since Kuti's death in 1997, though, club DJs have championed records featuring Allen's intricate beats, which have been a mainstay in the samplers of many hip-hop producers. Allen is relaxed about it.
"Now lots of people sample me," he says. "If it took until after the legend has gone, then that's the way it is."
Before joining Kuti's band in 1964, Allen had been playing Nigerian Highlife music. He and Kuti were keen students of American jazz, and their early Afrobeat experiments were a hybrid of the two, then known as Highlife Jazz. Later, when the group got into funk, the last essential ingredient was added to the mix.
"Of course, yes, there was funk. But that came later, after the jazz. But it wasn't our creation, it was a copy. But we never made it the same."
Despite Allen's contributions as the band's arranger and Kuti's admission that "without Tony Allen there would be no Afrobeat," the bandleader insisted on keeping the royalties from their record sales. Frustration at lack of recognition led Allen to strike out on his own in 1979, and since then he has had a prolific solo career, collaborating with famous African musicians such as Manu Dibango and King Sunny Ade, as well as journeying into dub, hip-hop and electronica. With these projects, Allen says, his aim was "just to be myself. I had no intention of working with any of the people I ended up working with, there was no logic involved."
Allen has just finished his latest album, "Lagos No Shaking," having decided to record in Nigeria for the first time in 25 years.
" 'Lagos No Shaking' is definitely the most rootsy project I have done, because everything I have done in Europe has been a fusion of some kind. It was a chance to go back to Nigeria -- and Lagos is still intact! That's what the title refers to," Allen says. "I went alone and gathered all kinds of people together to play. I wasn't thinking of the effect of the recording, but there is a rawness to the record. If I recorded it in Europe it would be too clean."
Back in Europe now, Allen is currently working on a project called The Good, the Bad, and the Queen with Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz; Danger Mouse of recent Gnarls Barkley fame; and Paul Simonon, ex-bass player of The Clash. Asked if he learns much from such collaborations, Allen says, "I listen to what other musicians do, and I might be inspired to do something from that. But my originality still reflects in my playing."
These projects will quite likely introduce Allen's sound to new audiences. But for those who have long been into his work, his solo recordings and those with Kuti remain close to the heart.
"With Fela, I thought I would play Afrobeat and get it to a certain level. But he has his own identity and I have mine. I am showing there is a difference there, but we are both spreading the same gospel."