Some artists require no introduction. Others can boast of achievements worthy of household status, but remain instantly recognisable to enthusiasts only. Despite high profile collaborations with Damon Albarn, a key role with the Africa Express project and a string of acclaimed recent solo albums, Tony Allen remains in the latter category.
This is a somewhat unfair state of affairs, considering Allen's accomplishments. As Fela Kuti's drummer and bandleader of the legendary Africa 70 orchestra, Allen was essential to the creation of Afrobeat. Following the huge success of Fela! the musical, this superhumanly funky stew of polyrhythmic hypnosis that infused the hypnotic repetition of prime James Brown with limber High Life grooves, traditional Nigerian rhythms and the improvisation-friendly looseness of Jazz is nearer to the mainstream than ever before. As recent documentary Finding Fela attests (Allen features prominently), Fela was hardly the epitome of humility, but even he acknowledged just how crucial Allen's impossibly dexterous beats were in the creation of Kuti's most celebrated works.
Considering the upgrade in the profile of the late serial scourge of Nigeria's corrupted military regimes and, consequently, the sublimely vibrant protest music he and Allen created following the recent Fela-fests on stage and screen, now would be the ideal time to unleash a nostalgia-tinged trip through the back pages of Afrobeat. However, the retro vibes of backwards-gazing opener "Moving On" are a bit of a red herring. With this musical career summary and introduction to the album out of the way, Film of Life is largely about, er, moving on. For example, the societal concerns of "Boat Journey" - a passionate warning against placing your life in the hands of ruthless people traffickers in an almost certainly hopeless quest of a better life - are in line with the contents of Allen's great early solo albums, but the track's slinky, minimalist bounce strays far from their relatively conventional Afrobeat settings.
Stylistically, there might not be all that much linking (mostly) instrumentals such as the fantastically frantic "Ewa" - gaze in awe at how Allen's loose yet metronome-tight fills fit seamlessly with the central riff - and "Koko Dance"'s updating of High Life's calls to the floor to, say, the melancholy drift of the sublime "Go Back" (with Allen's The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Rocket Juice and The Moon bandmate Albarn on vocals and co-writing duties). However, Allen's superlative drumming, utterly undimmed by the passing years, is idiosyncratic enough to tie all the disparate elements, guest vocalists and stylistic shifts into a seamless bunch: you'll know whose albums it is as soon as the beat kicks in, and the drum kit is rarely silent.
Not that Film of Life is about showcasing Allen's obvious virtuosity. Allen doesn't indulge in anything as obviously showing-off as drum solos. Then again, he doesn't really have to: the rhythms propelling these tracks are multilayered to the point where you'd swear each limb was working to a different time signature; a master-class display in unimaginable skill employed in the service of a greater good: the groove. Add this to a uniformly strong set of tunes and it’s clear that at 74, Allen has created one of his defining statements.
Tony Allen was instrumental in the creation of Afrobeat together with Fela Kuti. His rhythmic Yoruba patterns perfectly complementing Kuti’s instrumental funk and Pan-African Slogans. Their collaboration would last 15 years before Allen broke off into new musical territory covering diverse genres from dub to pop. Over the years he has worked with artists such as Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sebastian Telier and Joe Lovano.
The most fruitful partnership to emerge was with Damon Albarn. They met in London in 2003 and this led to the pair collaborating on the track ‘Every Season’ for Allen’s album “Homecooking”. Since then they have worked together in The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Africa Express and Rocket Juice and the Moon (alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea). Albarn describes Allen to be “the greatest drummer in the world”.
“Film of life” is Allen’s tenth album and features a cast of world class musicians including Albarn who plays Melodica on “Tiger Skip” and co-wrote and performed “Go Back”. The album brings together bebop, afrobeat jazz and psychedelic pop. Allen entrusted the production to a trio of young French musicians known as The Jazzbastard having heard their work with Malian rapper Oxmo Puccino and Canadian-Haitian singer Melissa Laveaux. The result is a stunning long-lasting album with a rich, varied, Technicolor soundscape. On the opener “Moving On” Allen recalls each of his previous albums depicting his spirit of endurance and powers of reinvention. Elsewhere on “The Boat Journey” and “Go Back”, Allen explores themes of exile and displacement whilst “Ire Omo”, “Koko Dance” and “Insider” pay homage to Africa and its rich cultural and spiritual heritage.
The album is a great addition to an already amazing career and it is impressive that even after all these years Allen is still innovating and not simply sitting back on his laurels.
With Allen─a student of bebop, funk, Afrobeat, and other musical sounds of the African Diaspora (and longtime member of Feta Kuli’s band)─on the drum set, this record is full of infectious grooves throughout; when it seems as though the pocket can get no deeper, Allen and company find innovative ways to dig a bit further into a song’s polyrhythmic structure. Eclectic as always, Allen and his band traipse through a number of musical styles throughout the course of this album, providing a nuanced treatment of each particular number and unlocking each song’s full potential. A dramatic horn section on “Moving On” punctuates straight-ahead Afrobeat grooves, while a hypnotic bass ostinato underscores the tastefully layered arrangement of “Boat Journey.” “Ire Omo” hearkens to the days when James Brown was arguably the single most important force in the music of the African Diaspora, combining the driving dual-guitar, horn riff approach of the JBs with multipart harmony group vocals. Allen even dabbles in styles less in line with his signature Afrobeat-jazz-funk blend, collaborating with former Blur and Gorillaz singer Damon Albarn, who contributes a melodica solo on “Tiger’s Skip” and lead vocal and piano on the Philly soul-meets-My Morning Jacket number “Go Back.”
Film of Life contains some of the same conceptual and politically conscious material that defines much of Allen’s prior work; however, he delivers these conceptual threads through the means of dance-friendly party grooves. This is in contrast to releases such as Black Voices (1999), an album that experiments heavily with electronic music, or Home Cooking (2002), which might best be described as a rap-meets-roots endeavor, both of which seem to let the musical material be defined by the concepts. Film of Life channels both Allen’s interest in experimental textures (with synthesizers and computer-generated effects appearing prominently throughout the record) and his interest in a Diasporic musical conversation into a well-rounded set of concise, danceable, and effective grooves, largely letting the music do most of the talking.
This song-driven approach pervades the record. Even though Allen, the bandleader, is a drummer, there are no extended solos; as no particular sense of lyrical conceptualism drives this album, neither does virtuosity. Rather, Allen and company let the music happen, finding grooves and exploring them in deep and challenging ways. This simultaneously sophisticated and funky record is not to be missed by any fan of Allen’s prior work, any musician who wants to deepen their understanding of where “the pocket” really is, or any listener who likes to get out on the dance floor.
Reviewed by Matthew Alley@blackgrooves.org
Film of Life, in contrast, is every bit the work of someone who has collaborated not just with Fela, but with Blur’s Damon Albarn, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, jazz frontiersman Archie Shepp, French electronicist Sebastien Tellier, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, to name a few. In 2006 he teamed with Albarn, Paul Simonon of the Clash, and Simon Tong of the Verve to record as the Good, the Bad and the Queen. Two years ago he, Albarn, and Flea worked together as Rocketjuice and the Moon.
Produced by French trio the Jazzbastards, Film of Life sparkles and crackles with unexpected combinations of styles and sounds at every turn. “Moving On” starts at the core: Allen’s mix of interlocking rhythms establishes a foundation to support ultra-funky horns. (His sometime-nickname, the Human Metronome, doesn’t even hint at the complexities of his playing and very human touch he possesses.) Next, “Boat Journey” builds with a skittering guitar line and cinematic touches like dramatic tympani, as Allen speak-sings a cautionary tale warning that those “running away from misery” will confront themselves and find “double misery.”
“Tiger’s Skip,” co-written by Albarn and featuring him on melodica, has some of the dub atmosphere the British artist has used with Gorillaz. “Ewa” conjures a jazzy ‘70s film soundtrack vibe, an intricate construction spiked by Vincent Taeger’s vibes. “Go Back” features Albarn on vocals in an introspective soul turn. “Ire Omo” brings in female singers Adunni and Nefretiti for a classic Afrobeat sound.