The drummer and unofficial music director of the late Fela Kuti's band Africa 70 from 1968 until 1979, Tony Allen (born Tony Oladipo Allen) was a co-creator of Afro-beat and the progenitor of Afro-funk. As a solo artist, Allen collaborated with hundreds of musicians from both Eastern and Western traditions. He incorporated pop, jazz, folk, soul, makossa, hip-hop, highlife, R&B, dub, and indie pop into his own music and collaborations. Allen released more than 30 albums during his time with Kuti (among them Roforofo Fight, Sorrow Tears and Blood, and Zombie). He began issuing his own dates leading the Afro Messengers for 1979's No Discrimination. His hybrid Afro-funk sound highlighted the connections he heard between Afro-beat, electronica, dub, R&B, and rap. 1985's Never Expect Power Always (aka N.E.P.A.), with his Afrobeat 2000 ensemble, brought the entire sound to a new generation of listeners in France's and London's post-punk scenes. 1999's Black Voices was critically regarded as the classic example of his Afro-beat/Afro-funk musical hybrids, while the following year's Psyco on Da Bus was the epitome of his avant-garde leanings. In 2006, he returned to Nigeria and Afro-beat proper on Lagos No Shaking (Lagos Is OK). The following year, Allen, Damon Albarn, Simon Tong, and Paul Simonon released their self-titled band debut, The Good, The Bad & The Queen. Allen returned to solo recording with the acclaimed Secret Agent in 2009, after which he worked with Grace Jones, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Oumou Sangare, Ginger Baker, and many others. In 2017, Allen's Tribute to Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers was issued by Blue Note.
A self-taught musician, Allen didn't begin playing drums until the age of 18 while working as a technician for a Nigerian radio station. Within nine months, he had embarked on a professional career as a drummer. Although Allen and Kuti had known each other since the early '60s when they performed on the Nigerian music circuit with different bands, they only began playing American-style jazz together in 1964. Before long, they shifted to an African-influenced style of highlife jazz, which they continued to play for five years.
Forming Africa 70 in 1969, Allen and Kuti reached out to an international audience. A few months later, while touring North America for the first time, Allen was introduced to the music of James Brown, Max Roach, and Art Blakey. Despite critical acclaim, the group faced numerous obstacles, including financial difficulties, racial discrimination, and political oppression. Arrested during the first of a long series of government-sponsored raids of black townships in 1974, Allen spent three days in jail. The following year, he released his first album as a leader, Progress. After performing his last show with Kuti and Africa 70 at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1979, Allen continued to play with his group Lagos until immigrating to Europe in 1984. After temporarily living in London, he settled in France the following year and worked as a session drummer for such transplanted African musicians as Ray Lema and Manu DiBango, and released Never Expect Power Always (N.E.P.A.) in 1985.
Allen was largely inactive for the next decade, although he re-emerged in the late '90s with a string of singles, culminating in the release of Home Cooking in 2002. Reissues of his '70s solo albums started showing up around the same time, as well as Eager Hands and Restless Feet: The Best of Tony Allen, a summation of his post-Fela career. In 2004, a live album was released, and 2006 saw him return to his Afro-beat roots with Lagos No Shaking, which was recorded in the Nigerian city itself.
In 2010, the Black Voices album was remastered and released in unedited session form under the title Black Voices Re-Visited. Allen further collaborated with Albarn and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea in the band Rocket Juice & the Moon. They released a self-titled album in 2013. He returned to recording solo in 2014 with French trio the Jazz Bastards. The results, Film of Life, featured guest appearances by Albarn, American-born Nigerian singer Kuku, and the renowned vocal ensemble Adunni & Nefertiti. It was released by Jazz Village in October 2014 and landed in the Top Five of the World Music Albums chart.
March 2020 saw the release of the collaborative album Rejoice on World Circuit. Having been friends since they were introduced by Kuti in the early '70s, Hugh Masekela and Allen shared many ideas about music. The pair were determined to cut an album together. When their touring schedules coincided in the U.K. in 2010, the moment finally presented itself and producer Nick Gold took the opportunity to record their encounter. The unfinished sessions, consisting of all-original compositions by the pair, lay archived until Masekela passed away in 2018. With renewed resolution, Allen and Gold, with the full blessing and participation of Masekela's estate, unearthed the original tapes and finished recording the album in summer 2019 at the same London studio where the original sessions had taken place, and a host of friends and admirers from London's new jazz world got together to complete the set, including Joe Armon-Jones (Ezra Collective), Tom Herbert (Acoustic Ladyland, the Invisible), Mutale Chashi (Kokoroko), and Steve Williamson. Sadly, it also proved to be one of Allen's last major projects; he died in Paris on April 30, 2020, following a heart attack. He was 79 years old. ~ Craig Harris