Reports are coming in that Tony Allen has died. He was just shy of his 80th birthday and had remained very active in music across the last decade; in fact he was super prolific – with a diverse range of collaborations across jazz, pop and funk music.
But even if he had stopped playing 40 years ago Tony Allen would still be important – would still be one of my favourite drummers – for he is The Drummer of Afrobeat. You won’t have to search far to find quotes from people like Brian Eno calling him the greatest or most important drummer in the world. For many, it is all about the records and shows he played with Fela Kuti; together they crafted the sound of Afrobeat – a fluid style of world-music funk that continues to inform and influence DJs, beatmakers and musicians across many genres today.
I first found out about Tony Allen through those Fela records. Of course. That, and his connection to Ginger Baker.
I’ve written a lot about Tony Allen over the last decade – including this piece as part of my collection about Drummers You Just Can’t Beat. I probably said all I need to say about my relationship with so much of his music in that piece. But he has continued to release work since I first wrote that. Including – most recently A fabulous collaboration album with Hugh Masekela that sat in the can for the best part of a decade and is now out for all to hear. A fitting swansong given Hugh’s recent passing (and now Allen’s).
There was also a wonderful tribute EP to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers – I have regularly re-watched this subtly astounding concert where Allen returned to his jazz roots and explored new routes. Art Blakey and Max Roach taught him so much – and he processed it in a way few drummers could, making something entirely new. But you watch him go back to the source and it’s all there. It all makes sense.
There’s so much good stuff from Allen – a sensitive, thoughtful, intuitive player – even if (how could this even be??!) you don’t like Afrobeat/find the Fela feels too abrasive then you could listen to Tony Allen with Sebastien Tellier. His empathic playing provides so much heart and soul to Tellier’s smirking croon-tunes. Then there’s the sublime collaboration between Allen and Damon Albarn – they were on two albums together under the band name The Good, The Bad and The Queen. The first record is a modern classic. The second, much more recent, is very good too. But from an Allen-fan point of view the real gem in their collaboration was when the pair teamed with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers for the one-off album and band Rocket Juice & The Moon. Well worth seeking out if you missed it at the time. Albarn appeared on Allen’s solo records from time to time too…
And so yes, there were many solo albums by Tony Allen. Also his collaborations with Jimi Tenor…basically wherever you found Tony Allen you found beautiful, intriguing, captivating drum-playing.
He was one of the very best – and I think that across the last decade in particular he was the drummer I listened to (actively listened to) the very most.
I even made what I call “A Tony Allen Starter Kit” playlist. It could have started anywhere – and gone on for days, so mine is of course just a finite selection.
His loss is enormous. We are so lucky to have the huge wealth and depth of his contributions to some of the best and most inspiring music I know. His feel and flow so obvious to notice – you can spot a Tony Allen groove in a line-up: It’s the one that’s nodding and smiling, falling in and out of line at will, marching to its own beat.
R.I.P. Tony Allen