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

Listen to a playlist Ammar’s selections:

Fela Kuti: Roforofo Fight (Roforofo Fight, 1972)


Roforofo Fight is the earliest cohesive expression of and saxophonist Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat : part polyrhythm, part highlife melody, part calypso swing, and 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 proved pivotal, exposing Kuti to the radicalism of the Panther movement and leading to the formulation of his militant aesthetic ‘70 band. On the title track of Kuti’s second album to be recorded after the trip, Allen takes centre with his undulating groove, slapping the snare on the jaunty offbeats to counter Kuti’s forceful diction. An enticing taste of to come.

Fela Kuti: No Get Enemy (Expensive , 1975)


Afrobeat rhythms seem deceptively simple: a steadily paced, off-kilter shuffle that holds the beat without succumbing to convention of landing the snare on the third beat of the . Try to play an Allen line, though, and realise how much ghosting and embellishment is going on the – doubles splayed on the 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 ’s reactionary .

Fela Kuti: (, 1976)


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

(Never Expect Power Always, 1984)

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

: (, 2007)

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

: Sounding Line 1 (Sounding Lines, 2015)


Perhaps the strangest and least well-known of Allen’s collaborations is that with the Moritz von Oswald, who replaced his longtime Vladislav with Allen for his 2015 album Sounding Lines. Allen produces a truly remarkable sound: a warped and manipulated 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 (A to Blakey and the Messengers, 2017)


Allen’s first was always jazz and he referenced throughout his the of rhythmic mastermind Roach and explosive powerhouse Art Blakey as influences. This 2017 Note recording was a welcome for Allen to delve into those 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)


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 of musical exploration, it interweaves metallic electronics with warm percussion, bright horn lines and that ever-present drum . 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)


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 noise beneath Mills’s distorting sub bass. Even in the grid-work of Mills’ techno, Allen manages to swing.

Tony Allen and : Never ( Never Gonna Be The Same) (, 2020)


In 2010, Allen paired up with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, a longtime collaborator and giant of South jazz. Rejoice was released a decade later, following Masekela’s death in 2018, and stands as Allen’s last released recording. As its title indicates, the album is a -dappled, joyous listening experience celebrating both ’ effortless ability to make us 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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