Even in an era when afrobeat is the apotheosis of cool, drummer and bandleader Tony Allen is the apothoeosis of afrobeat cool. His most ambitious album to date, Secret Agent features Allen’s multinational touring band in a set of songs that pays subtle homage to Fela Kuti—with whom Allen helped to create the afrobeat sound during a collaboration that lasted from 1965 until 1980—as well as highlife, jazz, R&B and even hip hop. But mostly, Allen’s roiling but supremely relaxed compositions bear his own sublime, understated stamp and create a universe where all these genres coexist, rooted in the unrivalled sizzle of his signature hi-hat and double-hit b-boom of his bass drum.
Born in 1940 and a drummer from his youth, Allen quickly became an acolyte of Art Blakey. He noted that Nigerian drummers in the 60s scarcely used the hi-hat, so he made it a centerpiece in his sound. Allen’s individualism and jazz sensibility made him the perfect drummer for the young Fela, and they collaborated in a jazz combo before forming the quasi-highlife band Koola Lobitos in 1965. That outfit became the archetypal afrobeat band Africa 70 five years later, and Allen’s mature drumming style defined its elegantly churning groove. In addition to many recordings with Fela, Allen headlined 3 albums with Africa 70 before distancing himself from the ever-growing Fela entourage in the early 80s. Allen moved to London in 1984, and then to Paris, where he launched a solo career that includes five CDs, culminating in this one.
Allen says he writes like a drummer, and certainly these songs are first and foremost about groove. These particular grooves, created with keyboard player and arranger Fixi, are superbly crafted. Each song is laced with distinguishing detail—clean bluesy guitar on “Secret Agent,” trombones and accordion on “Busybody,” and chromatic harmonica and growling electric piano on “Nina Lowo (Money is to Be Spent).” The brooding seriousness of afrobeat hovers persistently, but many of these songs are upbeat emotionally, even celebratory.
Allen holds forth vocally with his distinctive, dry whisper on the opening title track, and also the closer “Elewon Po (Too Many Prisoners)” with its interlocked guitars and old-school brass bringing in hints of highlife ambiance. On the extra-funky “Pariwo (Shout, Protest, Make Some Noise)” King Odudu takes the lead vocal, unleashing a raucous rasp that pointedly evokes the feisty spirit of Fela, underscoring the contrast with the more subtle and emotionally complex material that surrounds it. The rich voice of Orobiyi Adunni (aka AYO) brings an R&B diva feel and English language vocals—not especially memorable lyrically—to a few tracks, and the ubiquitous female afrobeat chorus emerges tastefully in a number of these mixes.
In the end, this is not so much an album about message as vibe. Allen is now an Afropop elder, a survivor who carries many banners but stands among them as an absolute original, a master of mood, a man with much to offer but nothing left to prove.