Jul 14, 2009
Tony Allen`s New Disc "Secret Agent"
'Secret Agent’' is drummer Tony Allen’s first solo album since 2006’s ‘Lagos No Shaking’. In the 3 year interim he provided the beats for ‘The Good, The Bad and The Queen’ - what could be called a supergroup, featuring Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon. Whilst Allen’s beats provided a suitable underpinning for Albarn’s musings on London life for that project, it’s when playing straight-up Afrobeat that the drum maestro is at his best. On ‘Secret Agent’, his first album for the label World Circuit, he does just that.
In the 40 odd years since Allen and Fela Kuti birthed the Afrobeat sound there has been little need to change the formula and this album is not short of funky horns, recurring guitar licks and call and response vocals. It’s not just Afrobeat-by-numbers though, the inclusion of accordion on a couple of tracks works remarkably well and it’s not surprising to learn Allen’s excellent band hail from Cameroon, Martinique and France.
Perhaps most telling however is that there has been little need for change in the lyrical sentiment since Fela’s searing indictments of social and political wrongdoings in 1970’s Nigeria. ‘Pariwo’ (“shout, protest, make some noise”) criticises government oppression and ‘Elewon Po’ (“too many prisoners”) targets the (in)justice system. ‘Nina Lowo’ (“money is to be spent”) and ‘Atuwaba’ (“no matter if things are bad, they’ll get better”) are based on traditional proverbs and are written and sung by Orobiyi Adunni, one of several Nigerian vocalists on the album. Afrobeat has always been dance music though and ‘Ijo’ (“dance”) and ‘Alutere’ (“the message the drums transmit”) are straightforward party songs. That’s not to say the rest of the album won’t make you move however – this is music to dance to from start to finish.
If there’s one other thing that’s remained constant in the 40 years since he laid the blueprints with Fela, it’s that when it comes to Afrobeat, Tony Allen is the original and the best and ‘Secret Agent’ is certainly proof of this.
It’s business as usual and business, as usual, is pretty damn good.
‘Mr Afrobeat’ returns, this time on the world’s leading world music label. Like his last album Lagos No Shaking, this was recorded in Allen’s old stomping ground, Lagos, the sprawling Nigerian megacity he refers to as ‘a complete mother****** of a place’. And, just as on that record, Allen is joined by several local guest vocalists. It’s business as usual and business, as usual, is pretty damn good.
The title may well refer to Allen’s famously spectral presence on his own albums, so ubiquitous but unobtrusive that he’s almost invisible when he’s right there in front of you. Although he is Africa’s most famous drummer, you won’t hear any drum solos on Secret Agent. But his kit is a constant presence driving the vibe, the trademark double-kick drum motif of Afrobeat criss-crossing with ting-tinging ride cymbals, gasping hi-hats, shuffling snares and those deceptively simple rolls on the toms that conclude a typical Tony Allen bar.
Gratifyingly, he book-ends the album with two of his own casually murmured lead vocals – partly a by-product of having to sing and play at the same time for much of his solo career. There are five other lead singers, most obviously Oribiyi Adunni a.k.a. AYO, whose sometimes strident vocals bring a contemporary R&B/soul diva flavour to Ijo, Nina Lowo, Ayenlo and Atuwaba.
The other most notable vocal presence is King Odudu, sounding as if he could easily be a member of Fela Kuti’s family on the slinky Celebrate and Pariwo. Despite the relaxed vibe of the latter, its militant Broken English lyrics (“culture, not torture”) continue Kuti’s Afrobeat tradition of speaking out against injustice. And the same is true of the ‘blaxploitation’-flavoured Elewon Po, which finds Allen protesting that there are “Too many prisoners”.
Secret Agent boasts some very tasty licks from Cameroonian guitarist Claude Dibongue, and especially sublime horn arrangements by co-producer Fixi, who also tinkers with Rhodes, keyboards, synths, trombone and accordion in a couple of places. Although Tony Allen is approaching his 70th birthday, Afrobeat’s co-creator isn’t resting on his laurels.
Labels: Tony Allen