A wild and funky new release punches the air and steps out into the big world of music. Who can say if it’s going to go platinum for sure? But I can tell you that this is a ground breaking new album from one of the greatest drummers on the planet - Tony Allen the man who created Afrobeat with Fela Kuti. 24 years after leaving Fela’s band he remains a restless and potent trail blazer for new African musical adventures. Homecooking is Tony Allen stepping out. Just like Herbie Hancock did, back in the day when he cut Rockit, the electro explosion that still defines an era, and propelled himself into the charts. It’s what major artists do when they no longer want to preach to the converted, when they want to address new audiences and new generations.
“Since the early days I’ve been trying to find things that everybody will want to listen to. I’ve always been pushing Afrobeat in different directions. Here’s another one again, another style, almost clean but still rough, raggedy and radical.’’
Tony Allen’s small and wiry frame contrasts with the powerful and transcendant force he radiates. On stage, behind that massive drum kit he’s serenely controlling the band. Compulsively watchable, you don’t want to miss a beat.
Off stage he’s still radiating ...cool, focussed, controlled, a man on a mission. And that’s how its always been, even when he was growing up in Lagos through the 1940’s and 50’s, before he discovered the drums which changed his and our lives. His righteous character and iron self-discipline meant he had his own path to forge, passionately believing he was going somewhere.
So he turned away from brief but promising careers as student, mechanic and electronic engineer, inevitably turning towards music. Music had always been around his home. His father, an automobile engineer, listened to Juju and other indigenous Yoruba music on the radio and at celebrations, often singing and playing instruments himself at home with his kids. But the teenage Tony was out at Lagos night spots digging the new Highlife sounds: Nigerian acts like Rex Lawson and wikkid Ghanaian acts like the Ramblers and E.T. Mensah. He was hooked....but he had no drumkit. No musicians in Lagos could afford their own instruments. They belonged to the clubs and hotels and you had to be hired by the house band if you wanted to get your eager hands on the sticks and your restless feet on the pedals.
‘Sir’ Victor Olayia (aka Evil Genius of Highlife) was the man who lit Tony’s fuse. His band, the Cool Cats, gigged around Nigeria throughout the 50’s in the wake of Mensah Highlife hysteria. He always had an eye for young talent. A certain Fela Ransome Kuti had sung with him for a couple of years, before he left for London to study music. Tony hung out with the Cool Cats and started playing claves. His big chance came when the drummer left and their new leader Sivor Lawson offered him the sticks.
His smouldering sense of mission had found a life long goal: to be the best, to keep on searching for his own sound. ‘I just wanted to sound like me...but I didn’t know what that sound was.’ He practised, studied, played countless all night sessions - ‘You gotta work hard if you really want to be the best’- and he listened constantly to US Jazz on record and on the radio. If Art Blakey was his god, Jesus was undoubtedly drum pioneer Kofi Ghanaba (aka Guy Warren of Ghana) who had taken Afro-ryddims live and direct to jazz stars like Dizzy, when he gigged in the US through the fifties.
After the Cool Cats disbanded, he played with Agu Norris and the Heatwaves, the Nigerian Messengers and the Melody Makers. Then in 1964, a guy came round and asked him to come and audition for a Jazz DJ at Nigeria Broadcasting, some cat called Fela Kuti, who was looking for the right drummer for his jazz-highlife band, Koola Lobitos. Fela was just back from 4 years of studying Music Theory and trumpet at Trinty College, London. He’d also got bitten real bad by the jazz bug while he was there. ‘That’s why he wanted me. After the audition Fela said, ‘How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this - Jazz and Highlife?’ ’
Together they were going to create some of the most significant music of the twentieth century, Afrobeat. Fela’s personality was ideal for a front man/band leader/guru: visionary, exuberant, iconoclastic, motor mouthed, control freak, touched with genius. But the cool, taciturn Tony complemented him just as his drum patterns complemented and catalysed Fela’s songs and arrangements. ‘Fela used to write out the parts for all the musicians in the band (Africa ’70). I was the only one who originated the music I played. He tried to write it for me but we both knew it didn’t sound so good that way. Fela said I sound like 4 drummers.’
By the mid-seventies, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was the African superstar - undoubtedly the coolest, hippest, best known African musician on this planet, at that time, both inside and outside of Africa. His iconic status as African Musical Rebel Warrior Genius had champions’ league western musicians like Paul McCartney, Bootsy Collins, Ginger Baker, and James Brown’s entourage flocking to worship at The Shrine. That was the name of Fela’s Lagos club - the Mother of All Good Times - where its resident superstar developed Afrobeat before the very ears of the punters, in an apparently endless series of epic stage shows filled with drums, musicians ,dancers and radical politics, while the customary Shrine spliff vendors completed the picture.
But as the seventies wore on, Tony could not shake his steadily growing disillusionment with Africa ’70 and the lack of recognition Fela gave him, even though Tony was leader of the band and provider of the prime element – those drum patterns that underpinned the whole mighty edifice. ‘What makes me decide it’s time to go? It’s … everything...and (his)carelessness....like he doesn’t care, like he doesn’t know ...he doesn’t feel he’s done anything(wrong). And with all the parasites around too.... there were 71 people on tour by now and only 30 working in the band....you got to ask why. Those guys were sapping Fela of his Force, of his Music.’ So Tony moved on, once again in search of his own sound. Fela had to find 4 drummers, one man just couldn’t replace Allenko on an all night set!
First thing for Tony was an all drummer show with Khofi Ghanaba at National Theatre in Lagos (find the tapes someone please!), checking out his roots and then he cut the still compelling No Discrimination album. The ’80’s saw him playing with King Sunny Ade in London, Ray Lema in Paris and releasing his own Afrobeat gem, NEPA. The ’90’s saw him working on the dub soaked, future Afrobeat of the Black Voices album for far sighted and hip Comet Records, produced by Doctor L, incendiary DJ and pillar of the Parisian electronica elite. As the new century came round, Tony gave us the deconstructed jazzy Afrobeat of Psycho On Da Bus.
Meanwhile Afrobeat has been breaking out all over. Fela could have been prophesying about Afro beat when he spoke about the future of African music in 1992 ‘It will break into the world, but it will take its time….because that’s the best way for the music to break. The gods do not want the music to break into the international scene as a fashion ….(but) as a serious cultural episode’ Since Fela’s death in 1997, Afrobeat has been enjoying a new serious cultural episode. It’s horizons continue to restlessly expand. The Groove has become a Temple where many worship - artists like Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun, New York rebel collective Antibalas, Andres Levin , Dele Sossimi, keyboard player for Fela’s Egypt ’80 and Femi’s Positive Force. There’s been Afrobeat subversion of the dance floors of New York through the work of DJ/remixer/producers like Masters at Work and Joe Clausell and in London and Paris, Ashley Beadle, Da Lata, IG Culture, the Shrine Synchrosystem and Zenzile have made the made the dance floor feel the force. It’s simultaneously grown into a widely used jazz form and a dance floor style. Clubs, labels and compilations which celebrate Fela, Afrobeat and Nigerian Afro Rock are seizing the time and pushing up shoots into the balmy Afrobeat springtime.
Last year, Eric and Manu at Comet Records sent out Tony’s drum tracks to chosen producers all over the world as part of their recent Allenko Brotherhood Ensemble Remix project. When Tony checked out the remix (Right Here in Front of You), by Unsung Heroes and their rapper of choice Ty, he saw the light. ‘I knew they’d be able to come up with something kickin’ for the album.’
It’s a mutual admiration society. Big time, Brad Evans from Unsung Heroes waxed lyrical about the Master. ‘(Tony) was such a pleasure to work with he was really open and receptive to bringing in new flavours to his music. It was an incredible pleasure…the whole project was fantastic, an eye opener for us, ‘cos we loved Afrobeat. We were trying to just bring our own character to his music, in the production that we gave him and on certain tracks, try to create a new genre…Afrohop…A real mix between Afrobeat and London hiphop that hadn’t really been done before on record.’
Ty was the rapper Tony had been looking for. ‘Ty is a great guy, I love him. He’s a nice boy you know, really really nice,.very cool headed … I’d like to work with him all the time, have him on stage with me. He’s a British/Nigerian , like he says‘an African boy brought up in London’. I didn’t want that American hip hop style, I wanted Ty’s London style.’
Ty felt the vibe.‘I was definitely trying to avoid coming in with an American aesthetic, I wanted to bring an original aesthetic to it, my voice, and my vibe, and I think that’s what he liked. The way I try and rap on this record is with an African sensibility without clicheing it. Because I’m African it doesn’t mean I have to show you I’m African. Being African is being African - that’s the energy I’m trying to come across with. I wouldn’t say I’m a conscious or cultural rapper, but I am a rapper without an identity crisis. So I’m from Nigeria and I live in a UK/Black/Caribbean/West Indian /English Multicultural Society and that is the basis of who I am as an artist and its what I try and say in a nutshell.
‘But this record is him trying not to do Africa ’70 again. That’s one of the things he said to me in the studio, ‘Africa 70, I’ve done that. I can keep doing it, but what’s the point?’ He’d noticed that rappers were borrowing his music and doing their songs, so he wanted to basically put his music into that and make it sonically correct rather than just a breakbeat ….. without diluting the energy of the Afrobeat.’Home Cooking
Tony: ‘Home Cooking takes a long time, you know, to get the recipes together and take your time to cook a nice dish. Everybody’s got to eat and on the road they all eat junk food, but home cooking is the best. My way of playing, my way of putting my music together is like home cooking…well cooked, not like junk food. But like the way I get my shit together - it’s a serious job. I do my cooking fine before selling it to anybody.’
Tony Allen appeared with his band at the 2003 Cork Jazz Festival and subsequently with The Afronova project in Dublin as a guest musician in October 2005.