Hip Deep Scholar Mark LeVine caught up with Afrobeat legend Tony Allen as he prepared for upcoming shows, on Friday and Sunday, in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Allen became famous as the “creator” of the Afrobeat beat at the start of his long time collaboration with fellow Nigerian Fela Kuti, with whom he worked on essentially every major hit the latter had in the 1960s and 1970s. Since that time, Allen has become one of the most sought after drummers on earth, playing not only with a host of leading African and global pop artists, but participating in super groups such as The Good, The Bad and the Queen, and Rocket Juice & the Moon (the latter with Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea).
Allen has been described by the likes of Brian Eno and other leading artists as “the greatest drummer in the world” (something we’d be curious to know if Cream drummer Ginger Baker, who worked with Fela and Allen in the late 1960s and considers himself the world’s greatest drummer, would agree with). He gave a few insights into his latest activities and some of the background to the music we all love.
Note: The interview will be expanded with a review of the LA show next week.
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QUESTION: WHAT WAS THE LAST ORIGINAL ALBUM ON WHICH BOTH TONY ALLEN AND FELA KUTI BOTH PLAYED.
Mark Levine: Tell us what’s brought you to California this trip?
Tony Allen: I’m on a tour in support of the Celebrating Fela festivities, which are going on all over the world and am working with local musicians at each stop. I am working on a new album, but have had to put off finishing it because of the tour. I have just been in China, Japan and Brazil. Each place has a different local band and I have come and worked with them. As long as they realize my music and wants me to be part of it, I’m happy to do it.
ML: How does that work playing with such diverse bands, given how specific Afrobeat rhythms are- particularly the different polyrhythms. I can see Brazilian musicians getting it easily, but Chinese?
TA: It’s all good. They all know the music. If I hear any issues or small details that aren’t correct, I quickly repair them, but everyone generally knows their parts.
ML: You were in Brazil during the latest mass protests. Coming from your history in Nigeria, especially with Fela, how did it feel being there in such a highly politicized time?
TA: Everything seemed quite similar. Sure it’s a different part of the world, but it still feels similar. They are pushing to change their government to be better, like we were. But it’s not just the politics; it’s also the music, of course. Brazilians play Afrobeat mixed with their own thing, to be sure. But you know, it’s still the same blues everywhere. They are playing Afrobeat, trying to go on the Afrobeat line, mixing it with their own thing, which is Samba. It’s very good. But Afrobeat is a style, so the musicians get into it and love it and change things and mix it all together into something new. As long as they get it properly, it’s great.
For me the drums are of course the key, wherever I go. But everything has to work. To me the horns—I don’t play them but I write the parts for horn players. I start always by writing for my drums, but then you have to add the guitars and horns, etc., so that they move it forward, are integrated. So that each part influences the other.
ML: You literally invented the beat in Afrobeat, but in the last decade you’ve played with so many varied people, from rock, R&B and other styles. How do you find the collaborations? Do they naturally get the grooves?
TA: When I’m playing with other groups, I listen, I know what I want to do and where I’m going and I don’t want to think like anybody. I play my drums the way I want to play it, yet it’s more important for me to relate to their styles than to force them to adapt to mine. You know, I don’t think like an African drummer, I think like a drummer. I’m a world drummer. I don’t want to be talking about African influence. I started from Africa but I don’t want to stay in one place, I need to evolve to other places, that’s why I can be with anyone, I can deal with any music. I don’t need to play just one style. I already did that when I created Afrobeat.
ML: And yet, as we all know, if there’s one country which more than any other is so close to Nigeria, it’s Ghana. In all the years you’ve played with Ghanaian artists, what do you think it is that makes the two musics and cultures so sympathetic to each other?
TA: I don’t know. I never think about these types of things—whether northern and southern musics interact in certain ways, or other similar issues. I just try to learn whatever music I’m doing, and in the end it’s really just “survival of the fittest,” isn’t it? The best music and musicians win.
ML: How does the politics of today impact how these styles intersect?
TA: I’m in a musician, I’m not a politician. All this messages that everyone is sending to the world—have you seen any change? Because there’s never any fucking change! I’m just out of it now, not following all these pushes for change. I sang enough. Fela sang enough. Look at the leaders of africa now. They’re still all rotten. I have been protesting up till now and nothing changes. So I’m not using my music to attack anyone anymore. I just want you dance and feel good. If there is any message I want to insert I will, but that’s not the most important thing.
ML: It’s as if too many people have become zombified and you can’t reach them the old ways? I was speaking with Femi Kuti a few weeks ago and he said that it’s not longer his father’s time, where you could write and record 30 minute songs that would never get on the radio but you’d still reach people. You need to update the sound and write for today and write things in a more radio friendly way that can start conversations. We can’t just copy Fela anymore. What do you think of this view?
TA: I agree completely.
ML: Where are you heading after this?
TA: Well I’m still on the road, then I’ll return to Paris and record my album. I’m also excited about my autobiography, Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat, that’s soon to be published and was co-written with Michael E. Veal, a Professor at Yale and author of Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon. That will be great to have my story out. Everything you could want to know is in that book.