Dec 30, 2010
Tony Allen - Lagos No Shaking
More than any other member of Fela Anikulapo Kuti's early bands, drummer Tony Allen can be said to have co-invented Afrobeat. Kuti provided the funk/jazz/Yoruba folk music themes and arrangements—plus the trademark insurrectionary lyrics and, crucially in the face of vicious and ongoing state attempts to silence the band, the leadership. (The buck sure enough stopped with Kuti, a man of extraordinary integrity and courage.) Allen provided that unique Afrobeat rhythm—a majestic, straight to your feet, loose-limbed but heavy shuffle.
The Afrobeat sound owns its very existence to its creators Fela Kuti and Tony Allen. Regarded as one of the most distinctive and in-demand drummers on the planet, Tony Allen is responsible for Afrobeat’s propulsive and melodic rhythms.
Since leaving Fela Kuti in the late ‘70s, Tony Allen has created a distinctive name for himself acting as bandleader, composer, and husky, rapping vocalist on a string of groundbreaking albums by pushing at the boundaries of African, rock, jazz and hip hop music, recording with the likes of Manu Dibango, King Sunny Ade and Blur/Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn. Now with his brand new album for Honest Jons, Tony Allen returns to Lagos, one of the world’s steamiest capitals of rhythm for his most powerful, personal, and all-African album to date, Lagos No Shaking.
Drawing on Lagos’ diverse musical traditions, Lagos No Shaking (slang for “Lagos is doing OK”) brings together several generations of musical talents into a bristling brew of unsurpassed rhythm. Collaborators include extraordinary 76 year-old vocalist Fatai Rolling Dollar, legendary saxophonists Baba Ani and Show Boy from Fela Kuti’s Afrika 70 and Egypt 80 line-ups, and vibrant soul woman Yinka Davies. Lagos No Shaking is a love letter from Africa’s city of rhythm featuring some its finest performers.
Tony Allen played drums in Fela Kuti's bands between 1964 and 1978, contributing a vital element to Afrobeat's evolution. And while he's been active as a bandleader for nearly three decades, Allen's presence has intensified during the last five years.
This set was recorded in Lagos, and manages to harness the rugged grit of that difficult city, whilst simultaneously presenting Allen's signature sound with a slick production sheen. Intense horn riffs, choppy guitar, call-and-response vocals: all of these elements are interwoven with Allen's detailed, cyclic beats, his taut tripping lending an elastic tension to the dancefloor.
The tunes tend to insinuate themselves after several airings. Young, soulful Yinka Davies powers abrasively through "Morose" and "Losun", two songs that boast almost annoyingly catchy choruses, then elderly groaner Fatai Rolling Dollar imparts a completely traditional juju feel to "Awa Na Re", prompting Allen to layer up some heavy hardcore percussion patterns.
Tony Allen is the co-creator of Afrobeat, and one of the most distinctive and in-demand drummers on the planet. No one swings like this Nigerian rhythm man — with that amazing, loose-limbed, poly-rhythmic technique that has powered some of the funkiest and most challenging dance music ever created. And Lagos No Shaking is his most powerful and personal album to date: a return to core values; a testament to the fact that afrobeat is best served straight — hot, hard and percussion-heavy.
Tony Allen grew up surrounded by rhythm: the local palm-wine and juju sounds loved by his motor mechanic father, and the pan-African, big-band highlife then sweeping the clubs of Africa — exemplified by the great Ghanaian bandleader E. T. Mensah. The young Tony developed an obsession with drums. But opportunities to get near a kit were few and far between in 1950s Lagos. He made his professional debut at the age of 18, while working as a radio technician, playing claves with Sir Victor Olaiya and his Cool Cats. When the regular drummer left, Tony was handed the sticks. He went on honing his technique with Negu Morris And The Heatwaves, the Nigerian Messengers and the Western Toppers Highlife Band. His role models were Art Blakey and the Ghanaian drummer Koffi Ghanaba, aka Guy Warren.
Then, in 1964, Tony was invited to audition for a band called Koola Lobitos, led by a young Nigerian — just returned from music studies in London — named Fela Kuti. Fela’s influence on the young drummer was incalculable. But then so was Tony’s on Fela. Here was exactly the musician Fela had been looking for: capable of fusing jazz and highlife sensibilities and sounding, as Kuti put it, ‘like five drummers at once’. If Fela was afrobeat’s mind and mouth, Tony Allen was its arms and legs, his webs of cascading off-beats endlessly powering the music forward.
Allen split with Fela in 1978 — citing the bandleader’s lack of care for his musicians. He relocated to Paris in 1980, involving himself in an amazing diversity of collaborative projects over the succeeding decades.
Now, finally, Tony Allen himself is back. Recorded over ten all-night sessions in the Ikeja district, Lagos No Shaking is the first Lagos-recorded album on which Tony has had complete artistic freedom. But it is also a truly collaborative work, which draws on the city’s diverse musical traditions and brings together several generations of Lagosian musical talent.
Key among the veterans is the extraordinary 76 year-old palm-wine singer Fatai Rolling Dollar, who adds his throatily commanding tones and throbbing agidigbo thumb piano to four tracks. From Fela’s classic Afrika 70 and Egypt 80 line-ups, saxmen Baba Ani and Show Boy add that essential deep-blasting horn undertow. There are the r and b sensibilities of Yinka Davies and Omololu Ogunleye; and Muritala Adisa adds touches of ewe, a form of spoken praise-singing rooted in ancent Yoruba tradition.
But the key element is, of course, Tony Allen’s powerful, yet magnicently relaxed drumming, which keeps everything in perpetual rocking motion, tempering the hard funk edges of classic afrobeat with earthier Lagosian flavours. Indeed, while the album’s observations on Lagos life are aptly tough and sardonic, this is a warmer, more down-home, perhaps a more humane album than anything Fela ever produced.
Lagos No Shaking means Lagos is on form, Lagos is solid; and on Awa Na Re Fatai Rolling Dollar sings the praises of a city that has been much reviled – not least by its own inhabitants. ‘Lagos is a fantastic place,’ he sings over rolling traditional percussion. ‘In Lagos you can get whatever you want.’ Ise Nla maintains the mood with talk of a ‘dream ticket, a fantastic job’. In Moyege Lolu thanks his parents for good upbringing and the freedom he feels when he stays with them. Ole ('Lazy') and Ogogoro — an ode to the local gin, complete with drunken marital discussion — warn of the dangers of hanging around in bars. Morose bemoans the grim expressions of the people of Lagos; and Losun alleges and lambasts the inexpressiveness of Nigerian men with true afrobeat frankness.
Lagos No Shaking is a spectacular homecoming for Tony Allen, an acerbic, unflinching love letter to the city that gave him life in rhythm.
Tony Allen, inventor of the Afro-beat rythmn and drums of such hi regard brought out a bit of a classice with Lagos No Shaking before he went off collborating with Honest Jon himself, Damon Albarn.
In fact old Honest Jon’s got serious on the 12” releases as ‘Moyege’, ‘One Tree’, ‘Kilode’ and ‘Ole’ and came out. The album starts with the hi-tempo ‘Ise Nla’ and keeps the funk going right up toh the end with arguably the best of the set, the stripped down instrumental ‘Gbedu’ that’s busy and simple all at the same time.
For once the contents are a good as the cover and it doesn’t really matter how old this album is, it’ll always sound good. And just to emphasis the point, don’t forget Vampi’s CD set Afro Disco Beat (that came out at the time of Tony being on African Soul Rebel Tour earlier in the year) that includes his first four solo album’s Jealousy (1975), Progress (1976), No Accomodation For Lagos (1978) and No Discrimination (1979). Even though Allen is now in his seventies, he can still caputure the imagination of the Beat Generation and long may he continue.
It's now nine years since the passing of Nigerian political firebrand, bandleader and Afrobeat creator Fela Kuti. His music drew on funk and jazz as well as the home-grown highlife sounds - it was intense, impassioned, focused and danceable.
Two of his sons, Femi and Seun, keep the torch burning - Femi with a sharp, radio-friendly Fela-lite, while the younger Seun's music sticks closer to dad's blueprint, and is no less exciting for it. It did him no harm on his 2004 UK visit, having percussionist Tony Allen on board.
Ah yes, Allen was Fela's chief musical collaborator through most of his very productive period with Africa 70, having first played with him in the mid 60s. Amongst other things, he was and is a drummer so ferociously rhythmic that when he finally left Fela's employ it took four men to replace him.
An in-demand session player with African greats like Manu Dibango, Sunny Ade and Ray Lema, and with eclectic credits elsewhere on the work of Roy Ayers, Spearhead and Susheela Raman, Allen's own solo albums have been only an occasional treat in the past couple of decades since he delivered Progress, his debut as a leader, in 1975 - though much of his repertoire has happily turned up on CD in recent times.
Honest Jon's Records is fast becoming a haven for treasures left-field, lost and overlooked, and has given Allen his head and let him do Lagos No Shaking. Recorded over 10 nights in the Nigerian capital, the record effortlessly proves that this older generation can still show the Afrobeat way. As might be expected, the album is rhythmically faultless, the percussion being allowed to breathe in its own space, while the horns are reassuringly rude, and the guitar figures conjure a trance for a dance, if you will.
Lagos No Shaking plays host to a handful of guest vocalists, including highlife maestro Fatai Rolling Dollar and diva Yinka Davies, and while that might present the idea of a Buena Vista-esque rolling revue, it's actually the record's only real failing, with some performances - largely those in English - like Morose and Losun, found wanting in execution. Where Fela made a virtue of communicating in English pidgin-style, these just strike a wrong chord.
But that minor grump aside, Tony Allen's return is all anyone could wish for. It's hot and heavy, exhausting in the best possible way, and as funky as hell. It's literally in a league of its own as the dance record of the year so far. A legend still going where others could only hope to tread.
1. Ise Nla
3. Aye Le
5. One Tree
8. Awa Na Re
Labels: Tony Allen