“Rhythm is the most perceptible and the least material thing in the world,” wrote John Miller Chernoff in his acclaimed book, African Rhythm and African Sensibility. It has been thirty years since this remarkable study inspired Brian Eno and David Byrne to completely revise their approach to music. Although in all honesty, if African rhythms began to alter the course of Western pop music, it is above all down to Tony Allen. No drummer better embodies the primordial vitality of those rhythms, nor devotes greater energy to maintaining their presence at the cutting edge of modern music. During his fifty-year career, Allen revolutionised the musical landscape of an entire continent, before embarking on a series of international collaborations that made him a benchmark for musicians worldwide. Now his tenth album, Film of Life, looks back on those amazing adventures whilst continuing to explore new horizons with all the drummer’s characteristic fervour and dexterity.
Born in Lagos in 1940, Tony Oladipo Allen never took up traditional African percussion instruments, but when working as a technician for Nigerian national radio he discovered and was immediately drawn to their distant cousin: the drums. A true autodidact, it was by listening to the recordings of the great American bebop drummers, Art Blakey and Max Roach, that he invented a technique he would gradually refine by honing his command of the cymbals – in particular the hi-hat, little used by African drummers – and the tom-toms. In the mid-1960s his destiny was to change forever when he met a fresh young graduate of the Trinity College of Music recently returned from England, a trumpet player by the name of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Their collaboration began as original co-members of the renowned highlife-jazz band, Koola Lobitos, before taking on far more epic proportions when Kuti set the world on fire with Afrobeat. Where the rhythmic patterns of Yoruba meet instrumental funk, with lyrics shot through with the rhetoric of the Black Panthers and theories of Pan-Africanism, this revolutionary new style saw Kuti hailed as the “Black President” of Afrobeat. His position was upheld by the supple yet precise rhythms of Allen’s human metronome for over fifteen years before their paths diverged.
Allen went on to pursue his solo career, forging a path between his loyalty to the original Afrobeat and his newfound freedom to explore a multiplicity of musical directions from dub, to space jazz, to international pop. Since his first encounter with Damon Albarn in 2006, Tony has been a member of the groups The Good, The Bad and The Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon, projects both led by the Blur singer. Sought out by an ever- increasing number of artists, he recently worked with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Sébastien Tellier, as well as Joe Lovano.
With its finger pressed on rewind, Film of Life travels back through a rich and exemplary musical life, providing the finishing touch to Allen’s 2013 autobiography. In the retrospective “Moving On”, his mellow sun-baked vocals recall each of his previous albums in turn as if to prove, if proof were needed, his spirit of endurance and his powers of reinvention. At a time when Afrobeat, like the blues and reggae, is being assimilated into the globalised music scene, Allen wants to be clear who’s the boss, to sound out each of the genre’s nuances. “I’ve always thought of my drums as an orchestra,” confides the fresh-faced 70-year old. “I like to create a melody with my drums when I play. I like to make them sing.” And no one knows how to make them sing like Tony! At his drum kit, he reminds us of nothing more than a fastidious watchmaker, bending time to his will, not its slave but its master. A paragon of precision, he spreads his groove, maniacally scattering semiquaver rests and electrifying flashes of metal. He caresses, whips and hammers his skins and his cymbals with an intelligence and economy that is quite simply awe-inspiring. No grandstanding. No solos. Tony plays like he breathes, with the grace of the ascetic and the wisdom of the sage.
He has entrusted the production of his tenth album to a trio of young French musicians known as The Jazzbastards (acclaimed for their previous work with Oxmo Puccino and Mélissa Laveaux) who have delivered a chef d’oeuvre that more than lives up to its title. Carefully avoiding the kitsch and glamour of Hollywood, Film of Life translates Afrobeat into glorious technicolor, from “African Man” to “Afro Kung Fu Beat” (the original version can be heard on the The Last King of Scotland soundtrack), from “Tiger Skip” (featuring Damon Albarn on melodica) to Tonywood (recorded with the American-born Nigerian singer Kuku). A musician faithful to his roots, Tony is not afraid to take a stand, as in “The Boat Journey”, inspired by the recent struggles of exile. A theme echoed in “Go Back”, co-written and sung by Damon Albarn in the true spirit of the Philly sound. In harmony with the current renaissance of interest in Great Black Music, “Ire Omo”, “Mojo” (with Manu Dibango on saxophone), “Koko Dance” and “Insider” are instantly recognisable as the work of a past master of the art. The art of bringing home to Africa the disparate waves of diaspora, so they may flow together into a triumphant resurgence.