“What’s done is done and gone.” As the groove machine of Afrobeat, Tony Allen can count himself among the most influential musicians of the past half century, but he is not interested in reminiscing about the past. “I’m not a talker, I’m a drummer.” He prefers to communicate via the dizzying rhythm patterns that he creates with both his hands and feet, as he will soon demonstrate at the Brussels Jazz Festival.
"I hate repeating myself and selling myself,” Tony Allen tells us decisively from Paris, where he has lived for years. He was born in Lagos in 1940 of a Ghanaian mother and Nigerian father. “Stagnation is out of the question. I want to evolve.”
This “never flagging, constantly looking ahead” attitude has made Allen the cool, ingenious drummer that he still is at 77 years old, but it also means he is a very difficult conversationalist.
At the end of our attempt to chat he refers us to the book he published in 2013: Tony Allen. An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat. “I wrote everything down in there so that I wouldn’t have to talk about it anymore.”
Of course, Allen hasn’t actually had to sell himself for years. Brian Eno once described him as one of the three drummers who really matter, and Damon Albarn, with whom he has launched several collaborative projects over the past ten years, sang on Blur’s “Music Is My Radar” that it was Tony who made him dance.
These are just two of the many Western musicians who would have given their right arm over the past few decades for the innovative polyrhythmic grooves produced by the drum legend, who as the band leader of the African superstar Fela Kuti laid the foundations of Afrobeat.
Rooted in the percussive traditions of the Yoruba people and the Ghanaian highlife jazz style, which blended traditional melodies and rhythms with Western instruments, that foundation could only evolve into a genuine genre thanks to Allen’s innovative drum technique, using all four limbs to create different rhythmic patterns simultaneously. It was mainly fellow drummers who came from across the globe to see with their own eyes and ears how he did it.
“It’s just my way,” he says about it now. “I can’t explain how I play. Anyone who wants to know what I sound like should just buy my records or come and see me live.”
To summarize very briefly, Allen’s polyrhythmic technique consists of him using the hi-hat pedal on his drums much more than his colleagues, so that all his limbs move constantly.
It requires impressive timing,” the Brussels jazz musician Nathan Daems, a big fan of Allen and African rhythms, once told us. “He only needs one drum set to do what others would need three of four percussionists to do, and he never sounds any less laidback.”
Allen has approached his current Art Blakey tribute in the same way. He became fascinated by the bebop pioneer’s drum style in the 1960s. The cross-fertilization between Africa and America would later become even more prominent during a long stay in the US with Fela Kuti’s then band Koola Lobitos. “But I don’t sound like Blakey, I’m playing him my way. I have my own style to expose. Simple.”
This was evident on last year’s mini-album, on which Allen blended a few of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers classics with his own Afrobeat, and later also on The Source, an album of original material that echoed other American jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.
In the meantime, Allen and his French quartet had set out on a tribute tour. Asked about the biggest challenge in interpreting the work of his bebop hero, he replies slightly indignantly that it wasn’t challenging at all. “I just decided to make a jazz album, and as with all my other projects, I did it in my own way. No big deal."
"I don’t care about pleasing an idol or anything like that. I played Afrobeat, I played electro, and now I’m playing jazz. It is not the standard American jazz that everyone knows, but my own Afrobeat jazz. I did record everything analogue and live, in the best Blue Note tradition."
"Playing all together in the same space still sounds the best and the most direct. Apart from that, I am not looking to the past but to the future. I absolutely hate getting stuck in a rut. Repeating yourself is boring. As soon as I get tired of something, I stop doing it.”
Tony, not Fela
This has characterized Allen’s whole career. Since he broke from Kuti forty years ago to become a bandleader himself, he has collaborated with the most diverse musicians from a wide range of genres, from reggae or dub to rock, from hip hop or house to techno, and from Jimmy Cliff or Grace Jones to Moodymann.
“If Jeff Mills calls me because he wants to make music with me, I do it. I don’t want to play the same style all the time, like the artists on the charts. I most enjoy working with other people. It always offers new opportunities. Each new configuration means you can express yourself in a different way.” Where does this openness come from? “I didn’t create myself. God did. So there’s no point asking me. I don’t do it for myself in any case. Ultimately, the audience decides.”
In contrast to Kuti, politics has never been a motive. “I’m not a revolutionary. I am Tony, not Fela. My music is not militant. It is not the soundtrack to one or another protest movement.”
He did recently share an article on his Facebook page about the horrifying news that Nigerian migrants were being sold as slaves in Libya. But here too, he prefers not to go into it: “I have nothing to say about things that anybody can watch on CNN. It is not my place to react to such things. Fela always reacted to shit like that. I am not up to that. I play music, and my main concern is not to become repetitive. Simple as that.”
Does this have repercussions on the music he listens to himself? “There is nothing specific. If I want to listen to something, I prefer it to be something that doesn’t exist yet. You see? I’m only interested in what’s next.”