May 16, 2014

Tony Allen: An Autobiography Of The Master Drummer Of Afrobeat

First of all, drummers are going to love this book. With so few autobiographies of drummers in print, the publication of Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat is a cause for celebration. Co-author Michael Veal, author of Fela: The Life and Times of a Musical Icon and an accomplished musician himself, brings to life the rhythm and emotional timbre of Tony Allen's speaking voice and the complex story of this singular, Lagos-born-now-expatriate musician in a first-person narrative that takes the reader through a particularly transformative time in West Africa's post-colonial history. Most importantly, the book is a hell of a lot of fun to read, although Allen's first-hand accounts of his struggles with shamanistic bandleader and Nigeria's adopted "black president" Fela Anikulapo-Kuti will piss off any musician who has had to fight to get paid for playing a gig. And Allen's chillingly matter-of-fact recollection of the aftermath of the 1977 military raid on Fela's "Kalakuta Republic" compound, a raid that involved beatings, rape, mutilation, and nearly burning the compound to the ground, is truly terrifying.

Swinging Like Hell!

Afrobeat, a musical genre that Veal describes as Nigeria's "sonic signature," was born out of Allen's mastery of what he describes as "a fusion of beats and patterns," including highlife, rumba, mambo, waltz-time, traditional music from Nigeria and Ghana, American R&B and funk and, not surprisingly, jazz. On Allen's first U.S. tour with Fela's band Koola Lobitos, a band that would be renamed Africa 70 upon its return to Nigeria, Allen heard and met drummer Frank Butler, who played drums with such musicians as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Allen cites the drumming techniques he learned directly from Butler as "the final piece of the puzzle that just made everything catch on fire."

And catch on fire it did. In his vivid description of Allen's drumming on the track "Fefe Naa Efe" from Fela and Africa 70's 1973 album Gentlemen, Veal writes: "Like the great jazz drummers, (Allen) keeps a steady conversation with the other instruments, particularly the soloists...Like a great boxer, he knows when to jab with his bass drum in order to punctuate a soloist's line, when to momentarily scatter and reconsolidate the flow with a hi-hat flourish, when to stoke the tension by laying deeply into the groove, and when to break and restart that tension by interjecting a crackling snare accent on the downbeat."

The book not only reveals Allen's methodical, years-long development of a new way to play the drum kit and propel Fela's compositional and political vision, it also shows Allen never stopped developing his technique post-Fela and continues to bring "the vitality of Yoruba artistic creativity" into new and innovative creative contexts. Allen negotiated the "world beat" market of the 1980s and 90s and experimented, like many African musicians recorded during those years, with heavily electronic and dub production techniques. In recent years, Allen has recorded and performed with American, French, and British musicians from genres that may seem light years away from his highlife roots. He saves some of his highest praise in the book for Damon Albarn, formerly the lead singer and bandleader of the wildly popular British band Blur and who has collaborated with Allen on several projects. "The way Damon came into my life," says Allen, "it was kind of like it had been written...not only did this guy make a big difference in my career, but we are also very good friends."

After many years of being underpaid and under appreciated for his innovations, Allen is currently enjoying a creative renaissance. One of the most moving passages in the book comes toward the end when Allen, now in his 70s, describes how busy he is "touring all over" Europe and what drives his creative work ethic. "I still want to play something impossible," Allen writes, "something that I never played before."

The Elder Statesman of Afrobeat Opens Up

Lately it seems that many of the world’s great percussionists are finally getting the attention and recognition they deserve. From the excellent new documentaries on Ginger Baker and Levon Helm, to Tony Allen’s recently released autobiography, Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat, it seems that music fans are finally beginning to wake up and realize how crucial a great drummer is to a great band. Cream wouldn’t have been Cream without Baker. The Band would not have been the Band without Helm.

And, as was plain to see upon his departure from Fela Kuti & the Africa 70 in 1978, Allen was essential to Fela’s iconic sound. Kuti made several great records following Allen’s absence, but these records noticeably lacked the virtuosic, yet understated touch of the master drummer of Afrobeat. In Allen’s new autobiography, co-written with Michael E. Veal (author of Fela: The Life and Times of a Musical Icon) we get a glimpse into the life and times of the man behind the kit, as well as fascinating insights into the tumultuous rise of Fela Kuti & the Afrika 70 to superstardom.

Aside from Veal’s adulatory introduction, Tony Allen is informal, highly conversational, and for the most part engaging, though Allen’s frequent digressions are occasionally confusing for the reader trying to piece together the larger picture. One thing is clear, however; from humble beginnings in Lagos with uncommonly supportive parents, to his triumphs with Kuti in the studio and on the international stage, to later life in France as the elder statesman of Afrobeat, Allen has always carried himself with a quiet confidence far more valuable than any lavish praise from music fans. It may have taken the world several decades to properly acknowledge his contributions to music, but Allen doesn’t seem to need anyone’s recognition, in stark contrast to Kuti, for whom the quest for respect and recognition seemed to be almost compulsive.

There are several entertaining passages that reveal the tension between Allen and Kuti during Afrika 70’s ascendancy to superstardom. One particularly memorable passage details the bandmates’ quarrels over groupies:

... The truth is all this bullshit happened because of the girls around. It was just a question of me screwing one girl that was his favorite. But nothing stopped him from screwing that girl also, as she lived in his house. So who was the master—was [Fela] not? If the girl followed me, it was because she wanted to… Why was [Fela] making a problem with me?... He gave it to me properly in front of that girl so that she would know that he was the boss. Which everybody already knew, anyway.

There is an air of slight bitterness surrounding Allen’s description of Kuti throughout the autobiography, and who can blame him: Kuti’s megalomaniacal genius and shady business ethics would have made any associated musician frustrated. Still, the immense strength of Kuti’s personality could not suppress Allen’s, and it becomes evident in Tony Allen that Allen has always been his own “boss”.

Any fan of Afrobeat knows the incredible debt the genre owes to Allen, but some fail to recognize the drummer’s influence in rock, pop, and beyond: Paul McCartney, 2uestlove, and Brian Eno are just a few contemporary titans who sing Allen’s praises, and recognize his innovation behind the kit. In the ‘50s Nigeria drum kits were rare; even rarer were Nigerians who knew what to do with them. Aside from a few brief mentorships with his new instrument in his adolescence, Allen has been teaching himself percussion for the better part of 70 years, never ceasing to develop and refine his style even as his ability has become known and celebrated throughout the world. Truly, this is the mark of a genius; that rare artist who never ceases exploring, refining, and challenging himself to take daring and uncomfortable risks with his craft.

It’s challenging to select only one performance to exemplify Allen’s talent; even limiting myself to five or ten choices seems to be doing the drummer an injustice. The truth is that Allen has been remarkably, consistently great for nearly half a century. I can still recall the first time I heard him play: as a lover of rhythm and percussionist myself, I was forever changed when I first experienced the force of Allen’s artistry in the 1977 classic, “Opposite People”. This is music that is nearly impossible to listen to and remain sitting still; Allen basically forces you to move.

After decades of being underpaid and underappreciated for his contributions with Kuti and beyond, it’s satisfying to see Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat in print. Drummers, fans of African music, and lovers of music more generally will find a lot to love in this book.


“This is not a slice of dry academia, what we get in this incredibly fruitful collaboration is 160 pages of rich revealing narrative that is so engrossing that I missed my stop on the tube. . . . Basically, I couldn’t put the book down and it had me sifting through the records to provide a soundtrack to the narrative.” - Paul Brad, Ancient to Future
“This master drummer’s account is enriched by unstinting critical appraisal, whether evaluating Fela’s most loved recordings or his own subsequent solo efforts. Tony Allen, ever restless, retains the enthusiasm of an absolute beginner, tempered with a survivor’s wisdom. His life obviously a work in progress, one anticipates music yet to come and the stories that surface in its wake.” - Richard Henderson, The Wire 

“This is a much needed, truly fascinating book… Allen spins the tale of his life, and of the evolution of one of the great popular musical styles of the 20th century, like the great storyteller he is. It’s a narrative filled with tasty anecdotes and twinkling details, which just add to its momentum. You can almost see the wry smile on his face as he challenges you to make up his own mind… Allen’s totally absorbing narrative was edited and shaped by Michael E. Veal… In his introduction he treats us to an unbeatably succinct, lucidly accurate contextual analysis of Allen as a ‘Yoruba modernist’. He also gets to grips with how the Allen technique works… This is highly readable and highly recommended.” - Max Reinhardt, Songlines

“There’s a sentence in the introduction where Veal, a Yale professor, uses the phrase ‘indigenization of jazz drumming’, but don’t let that put you off. The academic is present primarily to transcribe and edit, while Allen reflects on 50 years at the coalface… One of the great sidemen, Allen here cuts mercilessly through the bullshit.” - David Hutcheon, Mojo

"Tony Allen brings the music scene in Lagos, Nigeria, to life, the dynamic and spiritual music that the world came to know as Afrobeat. He shows what it means to be a musician and a master drummer, and he shares the stories not only of Fela Kuti but also of many other important musicians."—Randy Weston, author of African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston

"Tony Allen is an engaging person, an important musical figure during a dynamic era in African music, and a major contributor in the creation of an influential musical genre. He and Fela Kuti emerge in his portrayal as dedicated musical seekers who continually struggled to develop and protect their art. Allen's memoir is an exceptional achievement that will make readers wish to have been there with them to live it all again."—John M. Chernoff, percussionist, ethnographer, author
“Allen bring us his inspirational biography. Written together with Michael Veal, author of Fela Kuti’s biography, this is the most accessible Afrobeat book of them all. . . . Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of West-African popular music.”
Popmatters - Zachary Stockill
“After decades of being underpaid and underappreciated for his contributions with Kuti and beyond, it’s satisfying to see Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat in print. Drummers, fans of African music, and lovers of music more generally will find a lot to love in this book.”
Jazzwise - Jane Cornwel
“Anyone who knows their Afrobeat will tell you how pivotal the kit drummer Tony Allen was to the genre’s development. Indeed, as . . . Michael Veal points out in this important, deftly crafted book, the pairing of Allen and the late great Fela Anikulapo Kuti could be likened to partnerships between such jazz supernovas as Coltrane and Elvin Jones; Miles and Philly Joe Jones; Ornette and Billy Higgins.”

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