Invisible Jukebox: Tony Allen

Every month we play a musician a series of records which they’re asked to identify and comment on — with no prior knowledge of what they’re about to hear. This week: Tony Allen

GROWING UP in Lagos, Nigeria, in the 1940s and 50s, drummer Tony Allen got his first taste of music from his father, who tuned into Juju and Yoruba music stations on the radio, and sang and played instruments at home. As a teenager, Allen circulated around Lagos’s music haunts checking out its Highlife scene. He finally landed a spot playing claves with ‘Sir’ Victor Olayia And The Cool Cats, graduating to the full drum kit when their drummer left. After The Cool Cats disbanded, Allen went on to drum with Agu Norris And The Heatwaves, The Nigerian Messengers and The Melody Makers.

In 1964 he successfully auditioned for Fela Kuti’s jazz/Highlife group, Koola Lobitos, which evolved into Africa 70. That group’s fluid, polyrhythmic style introduced a new phrase to the musical lexicon: Afrobeat. If Africa 70 is where Fela’s radical politics came to the fore, it wasn’t at the cost of pleasure. Augmented by dancers, they would play all night sets at Fela’s Lagos Club, The Shrine. Although he was the bandleader of Fela’s groundbreaking and controversial group, Allen became disenchanted with its burgeoning rollcall of players and hangers-on, which peaked at more than 70. He quit in 1979 after a final performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival. According to legend, it took four drummers to replace him for the group’s subsequent marathon live shows.

Allen went on to collaborate with drummer Kofi Ghanaba in an all drumming show; he also played with King Sunny Ade, Ray Lema and Manu Dibango. In 1984, he emigrated to England and then to his current home in Paris. Since releasing his debut album, Progress (1986), Allen has developed a solo career incorporating elements of dub, jazz and rap into his ever evolving Afrobeat. His latest album, Home Cooking, is released on Wrasse Records. The Jukebox took place in London.


Yeah, I know this. What is it?

It’s Parliament, whose former members Mike ‘Clip’ Payne and Gary ‘Mudbone’ Cooper collaborated on your last album, Hollow Ear. How did that happen?

My first contact with Gary Cooper was when he came to play in Paris at the Bataclan with Bootsy Collins. Mudbone had done a few things in Paris of his own and wanted me to play the drums — he hasn’t released them yet, but he did do something with me after finishing [recording for my album]. I think we can still do more things together if they are available. This is good, they are tight. I know the style and they do the funk style nicely.

I am interested in this style of drumming that aims to get tighter and tighter and more ruthlessly mechanical. Yet if you program drums to achieve a ‘perfect’ beat, you can lose what you are striving for. Would you agree?

That’s my own view too, because the point with drum tracks, with drum smashing, whatever, is that it’s kind of robotic. I won’t play my drums like that, because I find it boring. If I had to play ten tracks with the same beat, it’s kind of funny, I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I wasn’t meant for such a thing. As soon as I’m bored, I’m looking forward, thinking, ‘How am I going to do it so that I won’t be bored?’ That is the way I go about things. My drumming might sound complicated to other drummers but [I would say] as long I can do it then they can do it too, it’s just a question of discipline. You have to work hard and practice properly. My last album was live. You can tell because of the way the drums change. Programming can’t change and be flexible like that. It takes a human being to do it. It’s my style and it’s just what I want to keep. I don’t want to play this [Funkadelic] style. I listen to it but I don’t want to play like that.

If not the drumming, what is it that appeals to you about this track?

It’s the basslines. Funkadelic’s basslines are happening when Bootsy Collins plays them, but the only thing that I don’t feel great about is that they kept on putting the same beats behind things which don’t warrant them. Sometimes they don’t relate at all. That’s what baffles me mostly, because I always say that every drum’s pattern must always come from inside the music composed. You have to extract the drum’s pattern from the music itself rather than layering it on top. If you can go about it like this, then we can start having fun. Because otherwise you write something and put something else behind it, and they don’t marry, they are not compatible. But in the name of commercialism maybe that’s the only way to go about it [laughs]: to put what people know behind something they don’t know.


I understand this one because I’ve played that style before. We did this in Nigeria before we started playing Afrobeat. I’ve gone through every phase like this, the rhythm and blues touch, the rock ‘n’ roll thing. So that, to me, is more like music than Parliament. You see people sweating there, man. I have all this stuff at home. And this is OK.

Do you know who this is specifically?

A lot of them had this style. Is it Rufus Thomas?

It’s James Brown.

The early stage of James Brown. I thought that but then I had doubts [laughs].

Was this type of R&B influential in Nigeria in the late 1950s and early 60s?

Yes it was. Look, they don’t buy things coming from Nigeria like they buy things coming from here. All these things are flooding the whole market there. That’s why the Nigerian musicians play exactly like what they hear. Most of them don’t do their own thing, they live on what has been done by others from Europe or America. Only a few can do something of their own, compose their own compositions and make it worth their while, really. The production side wants to be tight like this one, and these are the problems we have over there in Nigeria, West Africa, or Africa as a whole. You have to play like the Westerner first to be able to reach wherever you want to reach.

What sort of music did you first start playing professionally?

Highlife. It originated from Ghana really. Ghana and Nigeria were both colonised by the British. After independence, Highlife took over the African continent, but the point is that we all have different styles of interpreting it. After independence, everybody went their own way, doing the things they wanted to do. Apart from that we have the traditional music played by local musicians that is just drums and voices or sometimes one guitar, percussion and voices. That wasn’t my sector, because as soon as I start using guitar, horns and everything, it’s a kind of orchestra.

James Brown was a notoriously tough bandleader and reputedly fined his musicians if they made mistakes onstage. What was Fela Kuti like to play for? Was he also very strict?

It was similar, except I wasn’t treated badly because I was the bandleader, and if there’s any way of disciplining anybody, it’s not me. Like you say, if any musician makes a mistake onstage, that means he’s fined. It might be the whole week’s salary, it might be one day’s salary.

That’s a hell of a lot.

Yeah, well, it’s just so you don’t make a mistake any more. You have to be aware that when you’re on stage you have to be there. You don’t want to work and not be paid [laughs].


[Hums along] What is this track? ‘Take The A Train’?

It’s ‘Moanin”.

Yeah, I’ve played all these. We played this with Fela too. Because when he came back to Nigeria after [music] studies here, we were playing this — we did that strictly for one year before going onto Highlife jazz music. I was playing that with Fela, he was a trumpeter before changing to sax. We were playing all this. Fela didn’t want to play the Highlife, that’s why he started with jazz. But if you play jazz in Nigeria, there’s a very small audience and you cannot live from it. They preferred to dance to the music which is more local to here, to James Brown, or to dance to Otis Redding or The Temptations: all this American stuff. You have to go through this, you have to play this first before you become anything at all. And it’s good because it added to my experience. Today I fuse them together when I’m playing. The result, when you listen, is that you’ll be listening to jazz and you’ll be listening to Africa, or you’ll be listening to something [else] because I have four limbs and I make my four limbs do separate things at the same time, which is unlike jazz.

I know what you mean. In your drumming there’s more of a syncopation between the bass drum, snare drum and the hi-hat.

When we fused it, it started to become something. And some time after, something had to come into the music to simplify it, and that’s what came out. It became KIS: keep it simple [laughs]. It’s really interesting, you know. This is what drummers today lack… if they have to play that [rhythm] they might just stick on this one alone. They might not have tried to play rumba, cha-cha-cha, waltz, quickstep, tango, all those things that we passed through to be what we are today. Drummers today just want to be straight in like HipHop, with the same pattern backing everything. They never try to know that there were things happening there before this present style. But if you know how to play what I just mentioned, you have enough things to create. Like I said, the drumming will be extracted from the music.

Is Art Blakey a drummer you particularly admire?

Yeah. He was my idol. Superman. Art Blakey playing is not like one person playing. The way he treats jazz is to use African phrasing, his patterns. And when he’s riding on the cymbal, he’s serious — really something.

You mentioned HipHop. You use a rapper on your new record, but what do you think of that kind of music?

If I had to listen to it the whole day with the same thing hammering on my head, I think I wouldn’t want to listen to it anymore, maybe for a long time, maybe for another whole year [laughs].


Yeah, this is typical Nigerian music. It’s my language he sings there, Yoruba, but they’re more native, more indigenous. I love that because it’s not a straight business there, you have many percussions there saying different things.

Did you ever play such indigenous, ritualistic music?

No way, I never played this stuff. I left this for the people that know how to do it. It’s not meant for our side, this one’s for the village side.

This is Chief Twins…

[Olanyi] Seven Seven. That’s him, yeah. He’s just branched out into music really. He wasn’t a musician from the start, no. He was an artist. He draws what they call spirit drawing. He draws on the wall, decorates rooms with his paintings. Incredible. He does them for expatriates in the country, although he has had exhibitions sometimes to sell the paintings. But mostly they invite him to their house and say ‘just paint’, and he draws a lot of spirits on their wall. And when he decided to do music, this is what he came up with. I don’t know what he is doing now, but he had done a lot of this type of music back home.

How popular is this sort of music in Nigeria?

Since HipHop and R&B arrived, this is still played — but in villages, not in a city like Lagos. Unless people from the same village who are living in Lagos have a ceremony, and go to the village to bring them specially to the city to play. Then they probably come from the same area and understand the lyrics of the guy. Before you even travel 40 kilometres from Lagos, the language changes, the dialects change. Every 50 kilometres something changes. You play this music to the majority of Nigerians who are not Yorubas and they don’t care, because they don’t understand what the guy is singing. Maybe someone who doesn’t care about the lyrics is taken by the rhythm, and can dance and can do things. He doesn’t bother that he doesn’t understand what the singer was singing — as long as the rhythm has taken him, he goes for it.

During your career, you have collaborated more and more with musicians from different countries and backgrounds. For example, Blur’s Damon Albarn guests on a track on your new album.

For me, Damon I think is a musician, despite the fact that some people say he’s crazy [laughs]. I never saw that crazy side of him and I don’t wish to see it… maybe because he drinks. But everybody drinks, so I wouldn’t put any blame on him for that. That doesn’t worry me at all. As long as we relate to each other and we can sit down and talk about something and get it done, I couldn’t care less about his habits. But he’s a nice guy and he’s talented and he can dive into anything — that’s the way I look at it — despite the fact that he’s playing a different style.

It’s still quite a meeting of worlds.

Which is normal, you know? We have to meet somewhere to get things done, even if it’s not in our style, as long as it’s collaboration, because everybody has different things to put in. We don’t have anything to lose. It will make it better, brighter, because they say two heads are better than one. That is my belief. Because I kind of know what is inside your head, and you kind of know what is inside my head too. But it is better that we drop what we have on the table. They may not look like each other, but let us marry them together, that’s how it should be. That is the way I operate.


[Sings and taps along] I know this one. You see this one appeals to me really because of the drum pattern. The drum pattern is not boring, man, you’ve got something interesting to listen to.

We were wondering if you thought that the drums have…

An Afrobeat flavour? See, this one is fluid and it’s kind of manoeuvring, which makes it interesting. Yeah, The Meters had an outstanding kind of style, the drums are not just going ‘bang bang’. It’s music to me. There is a lot of inspiration we’ve had from that side of the world too. But it’s just a question of ‘Don’t try to be like them, don’t want to be like them, because you can’t. You won’t as long as you are not an American.’ Assuming there is a Nigerian group that is going to play all Meters, and assuming that they play better than The Meters, it would still be a waste of time because if they came here to this side of the world, America, the Americans can’t accept them as being better than The Meters. So why not stick to what you do, stick to what is coming from your base? Then you go clear.

The drumming here, by Ziggy Modeliste, is a prime example of not playing too much and not playing too little.

You don’t want to play too much, you don’t want to rock the boat. Make it clean, tight. A lot of drummers like to show off, crashing. It’s too easy. It’s not what I’m trying to say. Just make something very sensible — simple yet strong. I never used to sing before in my life, I never thought I would ever sing on a record. I was happy just to play my drums and compose the music and somebody else can come and do singing. But I had a lot of problems with the singers. Whenever you got someone to come in and do lead singing, he wanted to become the bandleader and to become the master of everything, just because he has the opportunity to be out in front. And sometimes they can’t even hit the notes. They can do it once, but when you say ‘let’s go’, they forget it. So these are the kind of things I try to escape from. I understand the way I compose and if I want to sing, I think I know how to go about it too. But the most difficult part is when I’m playing like four people already, to then start singing. Which I do now. It’s tough. If it’s a straightforward rhythm [sings] then it’s nothing, but it’s interesting for me not to have it straightforward like this. If I had a singer that respected every point of the music, I could sit down and play my drums properly.


This is a German group whose drummer is fascinated by African rhythms, among others.

They’re trying to change something but… yeah, it’s an African rhythm, but the placement is making it not groove: the placement of snare drum beats and how you put them together. But the rhythm is the African rhythm style. It’s OK for this side of the world, but if you played like that back home they would tell you that you are playing jazz, African jazz or whatever. It’s OK. Ginger Baker used to do drum things like this, in this kind of style.

It was a very unusual step at the time for an English musician to go over to Nigeria in the early 70s and collaborate with Nigerian musicians like yourself and Fela Kuti, and even build a studio there. How did you get on with him musically and as a person?

Ginger Baker is a good musician and a nice guy. I respect him as a white drummer that tries many things, he wants to play like a jungle man and he’s very energetic. To me, Ginger Baker is my friend anyway. We used to play together for fun, apart from what we have done together with Fela. I played live with him at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1978 on his own show. He wanted me to back him up, so you can imagine the two of us playing. I laid down patterns for him to play on top of, to let him have freedom to really go for it. It was quite interesting. [With Fela] I was playing with [Baker] all the time and he had room to do whatever he wanted to do, because we kept the groove going down there. No problem. Maybe if he was left on his own alone to deal with the music with Fela, it might be shaky, but as long as I was there everything was going fine. To me, he’s a good drummer. I really appreciate the effort he put into trying to not play like… just hammer your head. No. He has colours, and that makes it interesting.

It’s also interesting that he managed to fit in playing with you and Fela as he was renowned as one of the most flamboyant of English rock drummers.

He’s a hard, strong rock drummer, but when it comes to playing with Africans, he always wanted to get the flavour. That’s where the difference is between him and other drummers.

Are you going to play with him again?

It depends. Last time I called him I asked him, ‘Ginger, when are we going to play again? Let’s get something together for the fun of it — we can make an album.’ ‘Oh Tony,’ he said. ‘No.’ He said he’s now in the countryside of South Africa and is [too] old now to play. I asked him, ‘How old are you?’ and he said, ’60’. I said, ’60! And you are old?’ I said, ‘No, come off it Ginger, you are not fucking old. What do you mean by saying you are old at 60? You are still there. You are still moving.’ I said, ‘No, don’t give me that jazz, man [laughs]. Just come back to me later when you think you are not old.’


It’s OK. I’ll just tell you that if I had to play that, I wouldn’t play it that way — simple as that. This is funk.

The people doing the singing are better known for doing more soul and R&B, but changed style a year or so before this. This is The Temptations. What do you think of the way the horns and strings are arranged?

That side is untouchable for the Americans — super. I like their compositions and I like their music, it’s just the drums. The drums could be better, could be something else. You don’t call yourself a drummer and just sit up there and be a timekeeper. No.

When you were playing live with Fela Kuti in the 70s for hours at a time, how would you structure the set to keep it rhythmically varied?

Six hours every night, four nights in the week. In six hours you’ve got to put in variations, you’ve got to put in some kind of mixture so you don’t get bored. Fela is the one with his own compositions [but] I’m still the one playing the drums. Nobody told me what to do. It’s just that I knew I could try different things to arrive at the point where I could say, ‘This is the one that fits properly.’

But playing six hours must have been exhausting, like doing a full day on a building site.

[Laughs] It looks like that, but at the end of the day we don’t feel it. Over here I start to feel things. I arrive in Europe and the maximum time I have ever played is two hours. It’s so crazy. I went to Sheffield — last year, I think — all the way from Paris [Allen’s home] to London, to Sheffield for a gig. It’s so funny. They said I only had to play for 45 minutes. I just played four songs — 45 minutes! I mean I’d prefer to have slept in my house. Not that there was a problem with money — they paid whatever I asked for — but just so I wouldn’t be cheating them. Which wasn’t my fault because that was the programme. But after 45 minutes I’m just starting, warming up, and it was the end. It’s kind of frustrating to me, they should find another way of operating here. Even if I offered to play more, the organiser would say no, as someone is coming onstage again. It’s like that in the States too. The maximum is two hours. If I could organise a show of my own I would go on for three or four hours.

© Mike BarnesThe Wire, October 2002

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