Unlike most of the music world, Tony Allen can credibly claim to have invented a genre. The first drummer Fela Kuti didn't fire within a month, Allen's unique shuffling groove went on to become the backbone of Kuti's music, and as Fela forged his hybrid of jazz, funk and African hi-life, Allen paralleled, with drum patterns that were as indebted to the American jazz greats as they were to the master drummers playing the Lagos of his youth. The afrobeat sound they championed is still influencing musicians globally - but Tony Allen has long since moved on.
From his Paris base, the drummer has just completed his 12th (or possibly 13th) long player. Once again he's collaborating with Damon Albarn on a couple of tracks, but the majority of 'Film of Life' comes direct from Allen. Notably, it's no slavish afrobeat tribute, with the drummer insisting on pushing forward, always looking to innovate rather than reminisce.
In town to promote 'Film of Life' as well as his upcoming live show, Allen did us the honour of stepping into the Ransom Note office for a long, rambling and occasionally irrascable chat. Between chuckling, reminiscing and scowling, the impression Allen left was of a charming man who simply has no fucks to give. He's doing it his way; if you like it good, if you don't, well, he's been making people dance for over half a century. What do you know? Just don't ask him about modern afrobeats...
Tony Allen, where do we start? What brings you to London?
Well it’s a promotional movement for my next album, that’s why I’m in London.
Who have you got performing with you on the album coming up?
I have myself and my musicians over in Paris, everyone is in Paris except Damon [Albarn].
Ok, is it continuing a traditional afrobeat sound or are you pushing it further?
I’ve been trying different things with afrobeat since I’ve been on my own and I’ve been trying to push afrobeat to a different level so that it doesn’t stagnate. Many people are playing afrobeat today across the world in places like China, Berlin, Tokyo, America... Everywhere. Most of them are following the way that Fela did afrobeat and for me, I need to come off of that because Fela is Fela and Tony is Tony. I have my own view when I’m writing. The difference between Fela and me was that Fela is a writer, a composer and is writing musically - everything starts from the music first, the drums come later, they’re the last thing that comes. With me, I write the drums first before writing other things. So it’s a totally different approach.
Yeah. I guess you made quite traditional afrobeat stuff a long time ago, with tunes like ‘Jealousy’.
I get bored very quickly. When I’m bored I start to want to do something on the same track as the afrobeat but trying to mix the afrobeat into different places. Anyone can play afrobeat properly as it’s supposed to be played, but watching a drummer playing it, but not the right way, there’s technique to that.
Are you saying that what you bring isn’t necessarily a set pattern of rhythm, but the feeling behind that pattern- and you’re trying to bring that same feeling to new forms?
Exactly. For example, if I’m guesting on other people’s music - music completely written by white people that is not even afrobeat - if I happen to be playing the drums, you will know. You will know that, even though this music is not afrobeat, you’ll say “I think this is Tony playing here” because I have my identity.
Where are you taking your influences from now? What are you trying to move towards with your sound?
I just want to catch the ambience of what it is to be there. Things that time forgets. There can be a very useful moment but all of a sudden it’s gone. There was something at the time of afrobeat but now it’s gone. I don’t like to look back. Soundwise, what I use mostly now is sound - sound that wasn’t existing in afrobeat.
So are you talking about new technology?
Yes, kind of, yes. Making it appeal more to people that I would love to have guest on it. It’s not horns everywhere, this time there are keyboards and guitars playing things - good effects in there, to just make it fit in to the modern world. When I make music I don’t think about myself, I think about the people. If I have ten tracks there on different levels, it is for everybody - if you don’t like that one, you’ll like this one, or this one. It’s going to go around everybody.
The audience that you’ve been making stuff for has changed quite dramatically since when you started - are you aware of that when you write now? For example, do you think people in Lagos are going to jam out to the new Tony Allen album or is it more for a European audience? Is it hard to try and balance those two audiences?
Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’ve done what people have expected me to do in the past and I arrived here in England in 84/85 and I did an album called Nepa. The reviews said that Nepa was "an afrobeat album that Fela never recorded," just because I started to put synthesisers in and made it dub fashion - Fela would never use synthesisers at all, or put dub in. And at least that put me somewhere, I just wanted to be able to be separate from Fela. Then I arrived in France and I did 'Too Many Prisoners,' they just did limited copies so they finished and that was it.
Is that being reissued?
No, they are not being reissued. Not at all. Then I did Afrobeat Express which was a bit touched. At that time I wasn’t ready for it, I wanted to step full into Fela’s afrobeat style - Nepa already was something, and for this one I wanted to make them remember that I never forgot where I came from. In France they were thinking about the sound, and my drums were digitally treated. So my drums weren't sounding live any more, when they triggered it they sounded robotic, too tight.
How did you feel about that?
I didn’t like it at all. It sounded shit. After that I did 'Black Voices' and that became more electronic due to the producer Doctor L, he made it this way. I recorded it straight but he started to change things soundwise, twisting it around. That one gave me some recognition, I was able to tour the states with that. I hated the production so much. (Laughs)
So were you playing tunes that you hated?
I hated it so much! But it brought something for me. While on the tour we were driving between Canada and New York and on the tour bus we were writing another song. We made 'Psyco On Da Bus'. It went in the same direction as 'Black Voices' but even more crazy. I used to have reviews like “it’s good” and “what is Tony doing?” like I’d forgotten what afrobeat was like.
How were you feeling?
I never felt bad. When I’ve felt like doing something in the past I would do it. After 'Psyco On Da Bus' it was 'Home Cooking'. For 'Home Cooking' I brought in Damon Albarn, he was singing on the first track which was 'Every Season' and then the other tracks were getting towards what they wanted to hear from me. After that album I went to record in Nigeria, I wanted to bring things back and give people what they were looking for.
Something actually representing the Nigerian fanbase?
Yeah, I went back and I recorded the album 'Lagos No Shaking'. The first thing about going back to this again was that I was revising.
It seems to me that when you first started making afrobeat, a big part of it was always looking forwards and that’s an integral part to what you do. So people that want afrobeat to stay in one place seem to me to be completely at odds with the force that drives it.
You understand what it’s like for the guy doing it. So with the album done I followed it up with 'Secret Agent'. On 'Home Cooking' there was hip-hop and rap but on 'Secret Agent' there wasn’t any rap. This time I recorded it in Nigeria and Paris, it was still in almost the same style Fela wanted afrobeat to sound, that one was in that same range. I think I want to do something now that’s supposed to be music. Just music, I don’t want anyone to think about whatever they want me to do, I’m just doing music for my fans.
When you said to me before that you were making an album with the audience in mind, maybe with this album you’re making it with yourself in mind?
Yes, for sure, I’ve been looking forward to it every time I do something. I could go jazz, if I want to go jazz, but not American jazz. I could do my afrobeat but jazzy.
That’s kind of how it started as well wasn’t it? Those early recordings with Fela were more jazz than anything else.
Yep because my playing is a mixture of African and European.
Were you influenced by jazz drummers when you started?
Yeah, [Art] Blakey was my idol. Before Blakey it used to be Jerome Cooper but when I discovered Art Blakey I saw that it was a completely different approach to drumming and I preferred Art Blakey because I was listening to things that were impossible. I was trying to check out what was happening there, because he’s just one guy but when he’s playing you hear the drums as if it’s maybe 2 or 3 people playing it. I was asking “who’s playing the cymbal? Who’s playing the hi-hat?” but no, it’s him playing everything.
Am I right in thinking you grew up in Lagos? Was it unusual for you to be a jazz fan at the time or was it a big thing?
Jazz was there. You know what I mean? There was Bluenote records bringing out more jazz and every band liked to copy the new record to play live, we were all doing that. Fela was working at the broadcasting corporation NBC (Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation) he’d present jazz every Friday night and he decided not to present records any more, he decided to have a live band. So from a quartet on the radio I was strictly jazz with Fela for the first year. I was playing my highlife with the other band but with Fela there was a programme we had to present.
Were there any particular highlife drummers that interested you particularly?
Oh yeah, most of the drummers I met because most of the drummers had been playing for years before me and I’d known them to be good drummers.
What I’m wondering is are there any classic recordings that you could tell us about? I’d love to know if there were any really important records or was it just a live thing?
Well there were a lot of good bands - Orlando Julius was playing hi-life, but when we started to play, people started to switch to the hi-life jazz. Fela wasn’t going to play highlife, the type he knew before, he didn’t want to do that. That’s why he did jazz for the first year and he told me that if he wanted to start the highlife, he still wanted me around him because my drumming was special. He said he never heard any drummer like me before. He asked me where I learned to play drums, he used to have drummers before me and he told all of them they didn’t know how to play drums.
I wasn’t going to talk about Fela too much but as you mentioned him... Recently there was a film that came out, a documentary which you’re in as well, Finding Fela.
They were telling me about it, I don’t know how to get it.
It’s in the cinemas now. What comes out of it is a lot of the craziness of the Kalakuta days. Are you a crazy guy Tony?
I was in there, I was into all that. We would look at things like “are we playing music or are we becoming politicians?” I would prefer that we played music but then they are coming to bulldoze things down. They don’t listen to the preaching of what this guy was talking about, they just looked at him like a criminal or riff-raff or whatever, which wasn’t good for the reputation.
When you look at Nigeria now do you think that any of the stuff that you were doing at that time had any impact in the long-term changing of society?
I don’t want to change society because society is not going to change anybody. Fela already sung everything, he has sung the past, the present and the future. Everything that is there to be sung, Fela has sung. There is no point in repeating it. I just want to do music, I could sing about things that would relate to everybody but aren't fighting in government.
Do you listen to any of the current things in the genre now that people are calling afrobeats?
I don’t want to hear anything about afrobeats. They are ok, everything is ok for them. I don’t have anything to do with them at all, it doesn’t have anything to do with afrobeat at all.
I spoke to Seun Kuti recently and his response was very similar.
Of course it was! It doesn’t have anything to do with afrobeat but they call it afrobeats. It's their own thing going on to make them money so it’s ok. I still want to make people play more afrobeat than afrobeats.
Last question, the new album is done - are you happy with it?
I’m very happy. I’m happy because it’s a different direction for everybody, you’ve got a slow ones, fast ones...
What’s your favourite track?
My favourite track on the album? There was 'Go Back', from Damon, and 'Butch Johnny'.
I’m just appealing to everybody you know? You don’t have to risk your life, you just want to know what’s going on there. You want to go and discover somewhere and change your situation back home, but back home is rough. If a musician is to jump on the boat to cross the Mediterranean or the Atlantic to arrive in Europe, I think that is insane. It’s just my advice and my advice is if they want to come to Europe, that’s fine, but come the right way. Take the plane. Get your passport, get your Visa, come. If you want to stay in that country, you want to disappear which is not easy - coming to another man’s country you don’t have any chance to be able to work. If you are working on a vistor’s Visa, you are a criminal. So when you’re caught, you won’t be allowed to go back to that country. Everything is a risk. I would never have come here if I didn’t have anything to prove. Before I decided to come, when I left Fela I’d still phone him in Lagos. I had my band. I think I had something to bring with me, that’s when I made that decision. Whoever wants to come should just try to make it right, not to kill themselves. Even when they can get across the authorities are waiting for them and want to take them into detention.
It sounds like you are still singing about politics!
It's just being aware...