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Tony Allen: Inventor of Afrobeat was both technically remarkable and irresistibly funky

Drummer Tony Allen helped establish Afrobeat as a politically charged, socially conscious, eminently danceable musical force.

jazz is dead: drummer Tony Allen

Tony Allen performing at Heartland Festival, Denmark, in 2019 with Damon Albarn’s The Good, The Bad & The Queen. Image: Gonzales Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

I’ve written previously in this column about Jazz Is Dead, the provocatively named record label and live music company founded by producers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. In its six-year existence it has yielded new and interesting work by such revered heritage artists as Gary Bartz, Azymuth, Jean Carne and Lonnie Liston Smith among others. JID’s latest project might be its most ambitious yet – an LP of brand new music, co-created by Younge, from the late drummer Tony Allen, extolled by many as the inventor of Afrobeat. 

Allen, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 79, is best known for his work with Fela Kuti throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s. During this period he pioneered a “four-limb independence” drumming style, allowing him to play multiple rhythmic patterns simultaneously, creating intricate, layered compositions. He infused Nigerian highlife and Yoruba rhythms with elements of jazz and funk, citing Max Roach and Art Blakey as early influences. Allen’s drumming was distinguished by his ability to seamlessly merge complex polyrhythms with infectious grooves, creating a style that was both technically remarkable and naturally, irresistibly funky, helping to establish Afrobeat as a politically charged, socially conscious, eminently danceable musical force. 

Countless contemporary artists cite Allen as an influence. Femi Koleoso, drummer with UK jazz innovators Ezra Collective, tells me he considers Allen “the greatest beat maker of all time. The gentle touch but big sound. [I’m] forever trying to get that in my playing. The ultimate less is more.” Musicians and songwriters across a wide breadth of genres echo his sentiments, including those who had the chance to collaborate with Allen before he died, from Damon Albarn (who called him “maybe the greatest musical influence [of my life]” to Charlotte Gainsbourg. Brian Eno has declared him, “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”.

Adrian Younge, who is by now accustomed to the responsibility of protecting the legacy of hugely venerated musicians via Jazz is Dead, felt a special obligation when it came to creating Tony Allen JID018. “When you’re producing an album after a master has gone, you want to do something to help seal the legacy,” he tells me. 

“It’s not as if Tony needed me at all, but I wanted to add more relevance to the great work he’s done over the years.” Younge built the album from analogue recordings he made with Allen in 2020, shortly before his death. “This was something to me that is like a lifetime achievement – to be able to record with somebody that literally changed the rhythm of funk, the drums of funk.” 

Younge first discovered Allen’s music through his journey as a DJ, crate digging and “trying to find various kinds of funky, classic, timeless music to spin. In my younger days, when I really started getting into Fela, it changed the game for me because it was funk, but it was funk with a new kind of syncopation; a worldly syncopation versus just what we had here in the US and that hit me hard.”

Younge describes the new album as an attempt to “create music that I think [Allen] would really like and be proud of. So that is me digging into my DJ crates in my head and thinking about the kind of stuff he played on, and then thinking about how we could mash all that together to make something brand new, something that he would love to dance to up in Heaven. That’s all I try to do, and I hope he’s dancing.” This desire is evident on the album’s lead single Don’t Believe the Dancers; the production is delicate at first, in a manner that reflects Allen’s own thoughtful approach to his instrument. Fluttering flutes and xylophone open the track with a light, considered touch, cascading eventually into a great big danceable
modern Afrobeat sound. 

This is not Tony Allen’s first posthumous collaboration. The aptly titled There is No End, released in 2021, featured his beats behind inventive new compositions by artists such as FKA Twigs, Lava La Rue and Sampa the Great, and felt at the time like a baton being passed to the next generation of artists with a creative compulsion and something to say. Tony Allen JID018 feels like a logical next sonic step. 

As Younge puts it, “The album perspective is looking back to move forward. Creating an album with the legend that reminds you of the conversations he started, but now the conversation continues.”

Tony Allen JID018 is out 7 July on Jazz Is Dead 

Deb Grant is a radio host and music critic @djdebgrant

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