Tony Allen with Michael E. Veal
Duke University Press Books
So, in the end, I was quite disappointed with this book – I had been pretty excited about reading it; the best thing about this book is that it has in no way dulled my enthusiasm for Tony Allen’s wonderful playing, that elasticised beat; those rhythms that roll on, circle in on themselves and work their way in under your skin.
The book wasn’t terrible – probably just proof that the sideman’s story isn’t all that interesting.
Tony Allen’s main claim to fame is as the drummer/bandleader for Fela Kuti during a golden decade – he was the co-creator of Afrobeat; his dynamic playing was the blueprint, it was also never bettered, barely able to be replicated. It continues to be the defining pulse of the sound.
In recent years Allen has had his beats remixed and sampled, he’s released strong solo albums that retain some of the favour – and passion – of his work with Fela and he’s been a crucial collaborator with such disparate artists as Damon Albarn and Sebastien Tellier.
None of this makes for a particularly inspiring read with the bulk of the book – understandably – taken over by stories of Fela and his music. And though it’s great to hear Allen speak his mind, to point out that Kuti – for all the hero-worship – was often a shit of a human being and certainly a useless (unreliable) boss – it’s essentially the same story over and over. It was also good to hear someone speak the truth about Ginger Baker’s playing, a good rock player with some jazz influence but hardly the really great drummer the sycophantic fans are so sure he is. Also he had no real facility for the African music he championed, a plodder with no grace and no real skill there – clearly Baker was a fan of Fela’s music and did much to promote the music, helping it crossover with rock and jazz fans. But Allen, without sounding bitter, puts across honest statements around Baker’s lack of true skills.
I wanted to hear more about his time in France, his solo albums from recent years – which have, for the most part, been really strong – and his fantastic work with Albarn and Tellier. But it was all just token nods after sounding out – over and over – about Fela’s laziness, lack of any money sense and of how, ultimately, Allen feels a bit short-changed in the credit received for starting a sound. That might actually be hard to argue with but it doesn’t make for a great read.
Still, he remains one of my favourite drummers and in some way, because I’m a fan, because I was always going to reach for this book, I am glad I read it. I just couldn’t recommend it as anything close to an essential read.