You know when you see a really great juggler – the balls are all up in the air, the hands are simultaneously a blur and seem far too casual, you keep wondering how they’re going to make it, how will the circle hold, how is it that everything can stay up in the air and seem perfect, seamless. The flow can be interrupted, the balls intercepted, new tricks, additions, take one hand out for a while, behind the back, change the footing. Well, that’s what it’s like listening to a Tony Allen drum-fill. I picture a person juggling with one hand, lighting a smoke up with the other. That’s Tony Allen – the king of Afrobeat.
Many of the drummers we rave about are measured, in some small way anyway, on a legendary solo – or their ability to solo. But with Tony Allen you don’t even think about that. Oh, he can solo. Sure. That’s no issue. But it’s his impeccable timing, his dizzying ability to keep all the balls in the air and the groove just soldiering on, the elasticity of his playing, the way he marks a time on the hi-hat that no other player can put down.
You hear Tony Allen play a “straight” groove – for they’re never ever quite straight the way he plays them, they line up perfectly but only after he’s cut two different sets of patterns with pinking shears them placed them together leaving no traces of the jagged edges – and that is the solo. That’s the jaw-dropper. That’s the signature. That alone is something no one else can ever – quite – do.
I first heard Allen as the man behind Fela Kuti – the master of Afrobeat. And that’s a perfect way to want to hear him too.
But in recent years Tony Allen has been hitting out with his own albums and some great collaborations.
I knew a bit of the Fela stuff – but mostly I just knew about Fela, took it all in as one sound. When I went back to it, a few years on, it was to concentrate almost entirely on what Tony Allen brings to that sound. But when I first heard Tony Allen offering that strange and wonderful magic it was on the 2009 album he made with Jimi Tenor (part of the Inspiration Information series). That same year Allen had Secret Agent out too, a pretty great solo album.
Then the world got to know a bit more about him via his connection to Damon Albarn. First it was The Good, The Bad & The Queen – arguably the best band Albarn has created. The best single-album set of songs anyway. For now. Allegedly there’s another record on the way – and soon. Fingers crossed. Albarn and Allen worked so well together there they teamed up with Flea from the Chili Peppers for another group, Rocket Juice & The Moon. Look, not a lot happens on this record, and if it didn’t have Allen it would be mere folly. But he anchors it, he also adds the colour. He is the reason that record is worth hearing. There’s such a subtle strength in his playing – always the truth. His truth. His body-clock. His personality. His identity. That’s what propels his playing. All of that. And that’s what you hear. You hear all of that.
Tony Allen has also worked with Sebastien Tellier and Tellier is some strange sort of wizard; a true genius. He’s all Warren Ellis-impersonating-Serge Gainsbourg, this mountain-man down the hill to tinkle the ivories and sip a few brandies as he raises hemlines with his music. Tellier’s 2013 album was almost entirely instrumental and featured this Mantovani-like soup of strings and keys, these proud stirring bass-lines and the accordion-like stretch of Allen’s drumming, the secret sauce, the thing that held it all together whilst creating so much space.
Allen has just released a brand new solo album – Film of Life – and though it always sounds churlish to say this it’s damn-near the best thing he’s done. Well, you know, the other best thing – beyond, well, creating Afrobeat’s pulsing, strobing, searching rhythmic pull.
Film of Life has Allen in fine juggling form as he bounces about the toms, as he skates across the hi-hat, as he drives that bass drum hard. It’s drumming as its own dance. Virtuosity with none of the silly arrogance and bore-factor, only a stately confidence, a constant topping up of that 10,000 hours as the fills spillover and then refresh, his music, his approach to it, the sound and feel and flow – it’s always as if you’re hearing the old master and the brand new student in the one body. There’s a vitality to his playing, a freshness that feels as if he’s just picked up the sticks, never anything approaching jadedness, a limitless set of ideas. So many paints to choose from, all of the colours and the imagination.
You can always spot Tony Allen’s playing – even as it hides, just a little, peeking around the corner. You recognize the nose of his sound from just the slightest glimpse of the tip. He’s a human drum-machine, but no machine could ever replicate his feel. When he chops up the beat and plates it across several toms the service is exquisite, efficient – there’s melodicism to how he plays. And so much heart. More than that he never pins the music down for more than a second or two at a time, never squashes it – it’s his job to give it life, to help it, keep it breathing, show it the way. There he is on his cycle riding alongside the rest of the song. Nudging it when it needs it, cheering it on. Helping it to grow, hoping it will one day know it could never live without him. He is the music as he helps it on its way.
Drummers You Just Can’t Beat started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page