“I wanted to be one of the best — that was my wish,” Nigerian drum legend Tony Allen said on the Trap Set podcast during a 2015 interview. “To be the best, it’s not when you are doing the same thing with others…. To be the best means I have to find a way to put something on the road, create something that wasn’t there, for other people to learn from.”
Few would dispute that Allen, who died Thursday at age 79, lived up to his objective. When he joined up with Fela Kuti in mid-Sixties Lagos, Allen was already honing a style that married the swinging virtuosity of American jazz drummers like Art Blakey and Max Roach with the exuberant pulse of West African highlife and jùjú. Together, in Kuti’s band Africa ’70, the two honed a gorgeously propulsive, eminently danceable blend that the world would come to know as Afrobeat, and Allen’s lithe, effortlessly intricate rhythms were as inseparable from its sonic signature as Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks were from James Brown’s golden-age grooves.
Allen left Kuti’s band in the late Seventies after recording a slew of classic LPs and soon made his way to Europe. He eventually settled in Paris, and in the later part of his career, forged fruitful connections with musicians from the worlds of rock, electronica, and pop, while deepening his ties to Afrobeat and classic jazz. Here are nine career-spanning tracks that showcase Allen’s singular brilliance.
Fela Kuti and Africa ’70, “Gentleman” (1973)
“Gentleman” opens with a long, lonely horn solo; the band doesn’t join the fun for more than two minutes. Allen counts his bandmates in with a sharp, steady thump, then recedes. The brass section takes the lead, alternating between thick, unison passages and curling single lines; Allen is content to tap out morse-code–like pitter-patter beneath and around the horns. But don’t mistake softness for weakness — in the first half of “Gentleman,” when the horns blare en masse during a wordless refrain, Allen meets power with power, kicking up a racket by hammering his cymbals.
Fela Kuti and Africa ’70, “Zombie” (1976)
In his 2015 Trap Set interview, Allen described the core philosophy underlying Fela Kuti and Africa ’70’s epic jams as “K.I.S.,” i.e., “Keep it simple.” And Allen was the man most responsible for upholding that idea: On “Zombie,” a taut and relentless track from 1976, he lays down a fierce cyclical pattern, the perfect springboard for the band’s sprightly horn arrangements and call-and-response lyrics condemning Nigerian soldiers for their senseless tactics (a message that would sadly help spark a brutal attack on Fela’s Kalakuta Republic the following year). The song’s frequent stop-time breaks only underscore how central Allen’s beats were to the band’s hypnotic effect: Each time the drums kick back in, the song takes on that much more heat.
Fela Kuti and Africa ’70, “No Agreement” (1977)
This is easily one of the most danceable songs Allen ever made with Kuti — no small feat, considering their floor-filling prowess. The drummer spars with needling guitar and a darting keyboard during the graceful, kinetic opening. The sparse setting, with no horns and no other percussion, allows dancers to hone in on Allen’s hiccuping bass-drum pattern. His playing here is gleeful and a little reckless — he zooms forward and then pulls up sharply, like a driver speeding toward a red light.
Fela Kuti and Africa ’70, “Expensive Shit” (1977)
This 1975 track is agitated from the jump, with twitchy, pulse-quickening guitar and haunted-house keyboards. Allen’s drumming is jittery and headlong and low to the ground. Around the two-minute mark, “Expensive Shit” becomes as much a showcase of Allen’s athleticism as it is a song. His drumming is relentless, a tumbling, tightly wound cascade of slaps and thwacks and booms, plus at least one impossibly fast drum roll. The horns roar, but the real firepower is below the surface.
“Ise Nila” (2006)
Nine years after Fela’s death in 1997, Allen, then Paris-based, returned to Nigeria to revive the classic Africa ’70 sound. Released on Honest Jon’s label — a label co-run by Blur’s Damon Albarn, whom Allen would join up with in the Good, the Bad and the Queen — the resulting Lagos No Shaking instantly recalls the humid, perpetual-motion groove-scapes the drummer helped to pioneer with Fela. As heard on “Ise Nila,” Allen’s inimitable time sense, at once urgent and consummately laid-back, is fully intact, providing a velvety cushion for a rich melange of horns, guitars, and auxiliary percussion. The track lasts just over five minutes but could easily sprawl out to the jumbo running times favored by Africa ’70 without losing the slightest bit of intrigue.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Night-Time Intermission” (2006)
Allen is a cheerfully destabilizing presence on Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 5:55, an often somber album that’s heavy on stately ballads and light on rhythmic oomph. On the title track, Allen shows he can stick to the script, keeping his parts conservative and understated. But “Night-Time Intermission” is a welcome digression, full of spry, nimble playing — a parade-like pattern and the occasionally jarring cymbal splat. In Allen’s presence, even the keyboards become more energetic, and more percussive.
The Good, the Bad and the Queen, “The Good, the Bad and the Queen” (2007)
“Tony Allen … really got me dancing,” Damon Albarn sang on Blur’s 2000 single “Music Is My Radar,” which dedicated its entire third verse to the Afrobeat legend. Seven years later, Albarn would recruit Allen for the Good, the Bad and the Queen, a dub-influenced supergroup featuring the Clash’s Paul Simonon and the Verve’s Simon Tong. For their 2007 self-titled album, Allen plays the role of timekeeper and pacesetter while adding subtle polyrhythmic flourishes. However, on the band’s seven-minute eponymous song and album-closing track, Allen is finally unleashed for a percussive freakout reminiscent of the side-long aural adventures he embarked on with Africa ’70.
Rocket Juice and the Moon, “Benko” (2012)
Five years after the Good, the Bad and the Queen, Albarn reconnected with Allen and recruited Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea to form the one-off trio Rocket Juice and the Moon, a collaboration borne out of Albarn’s Africa Express voyages. Their self-titled 2012 LP serves as a vessel for the groovy interplay between Allen and Flea, like on the album highlight “Benko.” “I’m a huge Fela Kuti fan and Tony Allen is one of my favorite drummers, so to get to talk and play with him was just phenomenal,” Flea said of the collaboration. “The way I approach rhythm and groove is very similar to the way he does, and I feel with him a special something that is difficult to put into words but it’s a beautiful thing.” Following Allen’s death, Flea penned a touching tribute to “my hero.”
For many, from Fela himself to admirers like Flea and Brian Eno, Allen was a kind of North Star of drum-set artistry. Allen’s own pantheon consisted of American jazz drummers, with Art Blakey — whose hard-driving pulse powered his storied Jazz Messengers from the Fifties through to his death in 1990 — situated at the very top. “The first jazz events that I really followed were Blue Note, and that was how I discovered my idol Art Blakey,” Allen said in 2017, the same year he joined up with Blue Note to release A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The glorious EP features Allen adding his own inimitable sense of groove to the Messengers’ famously soulful tunes. The drummer and his band’s take on pianist Bobby Timmons’ 1958 landmark “Moanin'” shows that the stylistic union — spanning decades and continents — was as natural as hand in glove.