Tony Allen: the Afrobeat pioneer’s 10 finest recordings | Music | The Guardian

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Listen to a playlist of Ammar’s selections:

Fela Kuti: Roforofo Fight (Roforofo Fight, 1972)




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Roforofo Fight is the earliest cohesive expression of Tony Allen and saxophonist Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat sound: part Yoruba polyrhythm, part Nigerian highlife melody, part calypso swing, and all shuffling swagger. Allen and Kuti had been playing together for the best part of eight years at this point, mixing highlife and jazz, but a 1969 trip to the US proved pivotal, exposing Kuti to the radicalism of the Black Panther movement and leading to the formulation of his militant aesthetic Africa ‘70 band. On the title track of Kuti’s second album to be recorded after the trip, Allen takes centre stage with his undulating groove, slapping the snare on the jaunty offbeats to counter Kuti’s forceful diction. An enticing taste of things to come.

Fela Kuti: Water No Get Enemy (Expensive Shit, 1975)




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Afrobeat rhythms seem deceptively simple: a steadily paced, off-kilter shuffle that holds the beat without succumbing to the western convention of landing the snare on the third beat of the bar. Try to play an Allen line, though, and you soon realise how much ghosting and embellishment is going on below the surface – doubles splayed on the first note of a phrase, kick drums scattered throughout. And yet, the groove remains even when it feels like it might fall apart. Water No Get Enemy is the perfect example: a hip-swaying mid-tempo horn line sits atop Allen’s liquid shuffle while Kuti uses the amorphous imagery of water to outline methods of resistance to Nigeria’s reactionary government.

Fela Kuti: Zombie (Zombie, 1976)




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By the mid 70s, Kuti’s politics of resistance was reaching its peak. Zombie was its most forceful expression, Kuti’s lyrics characterising the violent Nigerian army as mindless zombies. You can feel the force of his frustration through his blistering saxophone as it meanders over the highlife guitar line, while Allen’s snappy, shaker-heavy rhythm is the ever-reliable foundation for Kuti’s social message. The song’s success in Nigeria was not without consequences, leading to a severe beating for Kuti, the torching of his studio and his elderly mother being thrown from a window and killed.

Tony Allen: Nepa (Never Expect Power Always, 1984)

Kuti had a domineering relationship to his bandmates, demanding all recording royalties for himself despite Allen’s role as musical director. As the 70s wore on and the group’s popularity increased, so did the dissent in its ranks. By 1979, Allen had recorded three albums as bandleader and so decided to leave the ‘Africa 70, taking many of its members with him. The greatest recording of his new era is 1984’s Nepa – an attack on the notoriously unreliable Nigerian Electrical Power Authority. Here Allen continues Kuti’s lineage of playful socio-political criticism, this time updating the Afrobeat sound to include dub-inflected electronics and fusion funk. It would become representative of Allen’s all-encompassing musical appetite in the years to come.

The Good, the Bad & the Queen: The Good, the Bad & the Queen (The Good, the Bad & the Queen, 2007)

As the 90s continued and Allen was establishing himself as an architect of Afrobeat in his own right, especially in the wake of Kuti’s 1997 death, his own genre-eating journey was evolving further into electronics and collaboration. A longtime fan of the genre, Damon Albarn enlisted Allen for his supergroup, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, featuring the Clash’s Paul Simonon on bass and the Verve’s Simon Tong on guitar. The sprawling title track is the closest we see Allen to cutting loose behind the kit and producing an unabashed rock sound behind Tong’s voluminous closing solo – a testament to his energetic versatility.

Moritz von Oswald: Sounding Line 1 (Sounding Lines, 2015)




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Perhaps the strangest and least well-known of Allen’s collaborations is that with the techno producer Moritz von Oswald, who replaced his longtime drummer Vladislav Delay with Allen for his 2015 album Sounding Lines. Allen produces a truly remarkable sound: a warped and manipulated series of electronics. The opening track sees Allen superimpose an Afrobeat shuffle on to a wobbly dub that builds over 10 minutes to create a simmering, electro dancefloor odyssey.

Tony Allen: A Night in Tunisia (A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Messengers, 2017)




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Allen’s first love was always jazz and he referenced throughout his life the work of rhythmic mastermind Max Roach and explosive powerhouse Art Blakey as major influences. This 2017 Blue Note recording was a welcome opportunity for Allen to finally delve into those roots and lay down his own interpretations. Across its four tracks Allen tackles some of Blakey’s best-loved tunes, like a straight-eighths Moanin’, but his Afrobeat-inflected Night in Tunisia is a work of genius, transforming the horn line into a punchy, driving vamp.

Tony Allen: Wolf Eats Wolf (The Source, 2017)




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Continuing his jazz explorations, Allen delivered his first album of original compositions as a bandleader for legendary jazz label Blue Note. The culmination of his decades of musical exploration, it interweaves metallic electronics with warm percussion, bright horn lines and that ever-present drum language. On Wolf Eats Wolf, Allen is comfortably experimental, putting a Synclavier to work over a highlife guitar line and Kuti-referencing horns to create an eminently danceable new jazz standard.

Tony Allen and Jeff Mills: Locked and Loaded (Tomorrow Comes the Harvest, 2018)




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Never one to be pigeonholed, on 2018’s Tomorrow Comes the Harvest Allen paired up with techno wizard Jeff Mills to further the electronic experiments he had begun with Von Oswald. Largely formulated for modular live performances, the record has a wonderfully loose, improvisatory feel. It hits its stride on the propulsive Locked and Loaded as Allen’s shuffle dissipates into white noise beneath Mills’s distorting sub bass. Even in the grid-work of Mills’ techno, Allen manages to swing.

Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela: Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be The Same) (Rejoice, 2020)




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In 2010, Allen paired up with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, a longtime collaborator and giant of South African jazz. Rejoice was released a decade later, following Masekela’s death in 2018, and now stands as Allen’s last released recording. As its title indicates, the album is a sun-dappled, joyous listening experience celebrating both artists’ effortless ability to make us shake a leg. Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be The Same) plays as an homage to Kuti and it serves as a perfect reminder that although our musical greats ultimately pass on, their legacy lies in each note, ready and willing to be dusted off, played and reinterpreted all over again.

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