How Fela Kuti Drummer Tony Allen Rediscovered His Jazz Roots

The Afrobeat master on why he ditched vocals and went in search of a new sound

Former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen discusses how his early love of jazz inspired his new album, 'The Source.' Credit: Bernard Benant

As Fela Kuti's drummer during the 1970s, Tony Allen was at the center of one of the era's greatest groups. "There was no band like the Africa '70," asserts Fela's son Femi Kuti, a respected Afrobeat musician in his own right. "And there is no drummer like Tony Allen."

In conjunction with Africa '70's conga players, Allen produced a darting web of rhythm, invigorating but never overpowering, that entranced generations of musicians. "I was accustomed to a hard and rigid sort of drive in the drums," explains prodigious bassist Meshell Ndegeocello. "Hearing Tony Allen really opened my mind up to fluidity and the understanding of agility within the pulse." Ndegeocello is part of the revered percussionist's high-powered unofficial fan club along with Brian Eno, Damon Albarn – who recruited Allen to drum on multiple side projects and contributes piano to one track on the drummer's new album, The Source – and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea.

Allen, however, shows little interest in revisiting his canonical work. "I don't talk about myself," he says, speaking over the phone from his longtime home in Paris. "I don't need to say what I've done." During a second call a week later – the first was plagued by a bad connection – Allen expands further. "I shouldn't be going back to that," he explains. "My music, when it's done, it's done. For me to explore – that's what I should be doing now." To that end, The Source is a vocal-less project that nurtures the drummer's longstanding connection to jazz.

Allen's release schedule has been nearly as idiosyncratic as his drumming since 1979, when he put out his first solo record without Kuti's involvement. He cuts an album now and then, maybe contributes to an Albarn project or a Zap Mama album or a dancefloor cut for French disco pioneer Cerrone. "When you are a musician, you know who Tony Allen is, of course," Cerrone says. "When you like the groove, you know Tony."

But Allen's productivity as a bandleader appears to be increasing with age: The Source marks his fourth LP since 2006, and a quick follow-up to an EP, A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which arrived in May. That was an explicit nod to jazz drum legend Blakey – "my idol" – and other Blue Note records that have informed Allen's playing since he encountered them on the radio in Nigeria in the early 1960s. Hearing Blakey prompted Allen to wonder, "Is he the only one on the drums, or are there two or three people?" (Allen has been praised in a similar fashion.) "I could hear a lot of things coming from an American guy that were very related to what I have in the continent of Africa," Allen adds.

Originally the Blakey tribute was planned as a live-only affair, but when he signed with Blue Note France, the label encouraged him to record the songs as a teaser EP before releasing a full-length. Simultaneously, Allen was playing with a jazz big band in Paris and coming to the realization that he was sick of doubling on vocals.

"Maybe once in a while [I'll sing] if I have to, but not now," he explains. "I really want to concentrate more on my drumming. My groove is already a complicated, difficult groove down there. And then singing on top of it? I've been doing it for years, but I'm tired of it now. I want to have the jazz music." He decided to make his next LP a 10-piece affair with no vocals.

To prepare for The Source, Allen got together with sideman Yann Jankielewicz – a collaborator since 2009's Secret Agent – for what the saxophonist calls a "sharing of taste." "We would drink whiskey, because we both like whiskey," he remembers, "and we started to listen to some music to know what jazz he loved and what I loved." Jankielewicz cued up Gil Evans, the Canadian pianist-arranger-composer whose partnership with Miles Davis resulted in monuments like Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain, while Allen brought Blakey and Charles Mingus to the table. "Classics," Jankielewicz acknowledges, "but still efficient."

On The Source, Allen often finds a middle ground between these references and the Afrobeat he is known for – or starts closer to one end of the spectrum before moving towards a mean, as he does on album opener "Moody Boy." In "On Fire," "Tony's Blues" and "Cool Cats," when the tempo is up, the bass is vamping steadily and the horns are gnawing a phrase in unison, The Source tilts towards the dance floor. Tracks like "Bad Roads" and "Woro Dance," in contrast, are more reserved than anything on Allen's last album, 2014's Film of Life.

Regardless of outcome, this is methodically constructed music. "What I always write first is my drums, the pattern I want to play with," Allen says. "Then I follow it by the bass. Then the keyboard. Then guitar." But within this regimented system, the horn section keeps changing. "We tried to create some surprises: sometimes it's two tenor and a baritone, sometimes one alto and one baritone or a trumpet and tuba," Jankielewicz says. And Mathias Allamane packs extra oomph into his bass riffs, anchoring the songs and leaving Allen plenty of room to roam. "That gives him the opportunity to play very free," Jankielewicz suggests. "The last two albums are a more static way of playing."

For Allen, stasis remains the enemy: With The Source finished, he suggests that he's planning yet another creative swerve. "If you check all my albums, the sound of each one is different every time," he notes. "This time now, I'm on jazz. This one is going to come, and it's going to go. And then I won't do the same direction again."