Femi and Seun Kuti are the heirs to their late father Fela’s King of Afrobeat crown. Right? Of course. Well, except…the crown hasn’t been up for grabs. Tony Allen was there from the music’s beginning, a creative partner/confidant of Fela starting in mid-‘60s Lagos. He wasn’t just the drummer in the crucial Africa 70 band. He was co-architect of a sound that endures today as strongly as ever. The crown is his, and on his his new album, Film of Life, he wears it in style.
It’s not because the music sounds like Fela. It’s because of the ways in which it does not. Yes, there is classic Afrobeat here—the punchy horns and female singers of opening song “Moving On” are legacy elements. But the song title is telling. Allen, now 74, is not done moving on, moving forward, which is in the truest spirit of his old boss/friend. Fela never wanted to recreate the past. Heck, there are plenty of bands around the world recreating it today.
Film of Life, in contrast, is every bit the work of someone who has collaborated not just with Fela, but with Blur’s Damon Albarn, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, jazz frontiersman Archie Shepp, French electronicist Sebastien Tellier, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, to name a few. In 2006 he teamed with Albarn, Paul Simonon of the Clash, and Simon Tong of the Verve to record as the Good, the Bad and the Queen. Two years ago he, Albarn, and Flea worked together as Rocketjuice and the Moon.
Produced by French trio the Jazzbastards, Film of Life sparkles and crackles with unexpected combinations of styles and sounds at every turn. “Moving On” starts at the core: Allen’s mix of interlocking rhythms establishes a foundation to support ultra-funky horns. (His sometime-nickname, the Human Metronome, doesn’t even hint at the complexities of his playing and very human touch he possesses.) Next, “Boat Journey” builds with a skittering guitar line and cinematic touches like dramatic tympani, as Allen speak-sings a cautionary tale warning that those “running away from misery” will confront themselves and find “double misery.”
“Tiger’s Skip,” co-written by Albarn and featuring him on melodica, has some of the dub atmosphere the British artist has used with Gorillaz. “Ewa” conjures a jazzy ‘70s film soundtrack vibe, an intricate construction spiked by Vincent Taeger’s vibes. “Go Back” features Albarn on vocals in an introspective soul turn. “Ire Omo” brings in female singers Adunni and Nefretiti for a classic Afrobeat sound.
Each song reveals something new, something surprising. Each listen shows more layers and depth. Tony Allen could easily get by on his past achievements, but with this album he reaches new peaks—his Film of Life is still being made.