Tony Allen: 1940 - 2020

There would be no Afrobeat without Allen, but his fusion of jazz, African highlife and funk radiates beyond genre.

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Image credit: Rovi.

Tony Allen was an Afrobeat architect, a paragon of polyrhythm. The drummer — who helped shape that musical movement as part of Fela Kuti's band Africa 70 — died in Paris of a heart attack on April 30, his manager confirmed to various outlets. He was 79.

His influence sprawls so wide that it’s impossible to trace it in a straight line: There would be no Afrobeat without Allen, but his fusion of jazz, African highlife and funk radiates beyond fixed genre. His radical approach to drumming — subtly complex, each limb communicating with independent patterns — dates back to his youth in Nigeria. In the local nightclubs, he studied local jazz-highlife players and realized they weren't utilizing the kit, particularly the hi-hat, to its full potential.

“Before I had only seen it closed, and when I saw this hi-hat moving in and out — they play chk chk chk … I thought something was wrong," he told Clash in 2017. “The instrument has a pedal, so you have to pedal it. With the pedal it’s just one leg. And you cannot ride a bicycle with just one leg!”

The drummer found his voice after linking up with the charismatic Kuti, serving as the rhythmic engine on his iconic run of ’70s LPs. As a bandleader and collaborator, he journeyed through Afrofunk, jazz, electronica and hip-hop, and experimented even into his later years.

As a salute to a percussive pioneer, let's highlight five classics from Allen’s catalog.

Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa 70/Ginger Baker
“Ye Ye De Smell”
Live! (1971)

One of the most astounding dual-drummer exhibitions in music history, Kuti’s 1971 Live! LP cemented the intimate chemistry between Allen and former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, who had melded jazz and African styles in a heavier setting. The album’s centerpiece is “Ye Ye De Smell,” a whirlwind of stacked percussion, chiming keys and punctuated horns. Allen and Baker attack their kits with a rare level of synchronicity — including a lengthy percussion section full of stabbing snares and swinging cymbals. When the pair crack their snares simultaneously, it’s like two heavyweight boxers punching in unison.

Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa 70
“Expensive Shit”
Expensive Shit (1975)

Allen’s sense of dynamics was unparalleled. Unlike many of the rock drummers he influenced, he embraced the tonal colors achieved through softness: For most of this simmering, 13-minute epic, you have to concentrate to highlight his snare rolls and ticking hi-hats amid the congas and shakers that form an ornate wall of percussion. But when he decides to break through that wall, most notably when he opens his hats with an abrupt clang, the impact is that much more powerful.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Africa 70
“Mr. Follow Follow”
Zombie (1977)

Often overshadowed by Zombie's more aggressive title track, “Mr. Follow Follow” nonetheless exemplifies Allen’s skill at piloting a massive crew of players. Throughout these 13 funky minutes, a pair of electric guitars intertwine among a sauntering bass and horns that curl like question marks. But Allen's probing drums are the anchor — a twitchy start-stop rhythm with jarring hi-hat interjections, stuttering snares and tripping-down-the-stairs tom fills.

Rocket Juice & the Moon
“Follow-Fashion”
Rocket Juice & the Moon (2012)

This cultural collision paired Allen with two of his most vocal fans, Blur/Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. Though much of the project feels like a loose, spontaneous jam slapped into songs via editing, the camaraderie is palpable on funky, trippy Afrobeat workouts like “Follow-Fashion.” The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Malian vocalist Fatoumata Diawara add color to the circular guitar and bass riffs, but Allen is the star: He taps out the pulse on the hi-hat with his left foot, clanking out accents with his hands on the snare and rim. It’s a quintessential showcase of his limb independence — each contributing a sentence to a larger rhythmic conversation.

Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela
“Robbers, Thugs and Muggers (O'Galajani)”
Rejoice (2020)

Allen connected with the legendary South African flugelhornist Hugh Masekela for this 2010 session,which brings out the drummer’s swinging side. On “Robbers, Thugs and Muggers (O'Galajani),” he joyously explores every inch of his kit, churning out crisp ride-cymbal patterns, quiet snare rolls and tumbling toms that reverberate with a hefty boom. There’s a full band here, sure, and their smooth, jazzy interplay is a thing of beauty. But you could mute the other musicians and still have enough groove to go around.

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