Tony Allen, who with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti co-created Afrobeat – a movement in music that has now become one of the most influential in popular music – departed this life last Thursday, April 30. Yinka Olatunbosun reviews his life and times
Tony Oladipo Allen had his last breath on April 30, a date known globally as the International Jazz Day. Though the news of his death was a shock to many, it was no surprise that it would happen on a significant day in history even if it was just a few months to his 80th birthday. Last December, his pre-80th birthday was celebrated in Lagos amidst a close-knit music family including jazz influencers such as the Founder, Lagos International Jazz Festival, Ayoola Shadare and the master flutist, Tee Mac Omatsola Iseli.
Allen was a most sought-after drummer of his generation especially by foreign media. He is famously regarded as “four-in-one” drummer because after his exit from Fela’s band in 1979, he was replaced by four drummers. In his book, This Fela Sef, the broadcast journalist, music critic and Fela’s first manager, Benson Idonije revealed how Allen came to join Fela’s band. Of course, his career in music started before he met the iconoclast Afrobeat musician.
“For percussion, I went to Chief Ladebu’s Western Hotel at Mushin on the mainland of Lagos, where the great highlife composer and lyricist, Adeolu Akinsanya was playing at the time, leading the Western Toppers Band. From there, I picked Tony Allen the drummer,” he recounted. Allen also had a stint with Victor Olaiya and the Cool Cats band. But he was headhunted after Fela had tried so hard to get a drummer that could really play jazz.
The music experiment called Afrobeat which constitutes a defining moment in his career is indeed a product of Fela’s jazz background and Allen’s highlife experience. Fela was blown away by Pino’s soul popularity and needed to change the direction of his music. Pino’s music was fashioned after James Brown; and he was fast dominating nightlife in Lagos. With Allen’s ingenuity with the drums, Fela created the new sound known as Afrobeat.
“Rest In Power, Tony Allen, The Godfather of Afrobeat Rhythms. Thank you for giving us the sound that would change our lives and our destiny as a people.”
Shadare, the founder, LIJF, who organised “Lagos No Shaking Homecoming Concert” for Allen in December 2019 said that Allen would have been in this year’s edition of LIJF if not for Covid-19 outbreak that grounded every concert and festival.