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The Secret Agent of Afrobeat

Gig review: Tony Allen and band
RASA, Utrecht, 2 December 2009

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AFROBEAT’S CO-CREATOR

“Without Tony Allen there would be no Afrobeat”. This famous quote from Fela Kuti says it all. Usually all the credit goes to Fela Kuti for giving birth to the utter infectious hybrid music form from West-Africa. It was, in fact, Fela Kuti and Tony Allen together that spawned the Afrobeat style of music. While Fela wrote the harmonies and melodies (and, of course, those sneering political lyrics) it was Tony Allen who was responsible for the evenly important rhythmical component. Tony Allen was the drummer and musical director for Afrika 70 from its inception to the disbandment in 1979 after a concert at the Berlin Jazz Festival. From that point on Tony Allen worked as a solo artist or musical mercenary for any band or artist with an empty drum stool. Allen’s first three albums as a solo artist were produced by Fela Kuti. But as time went by, both men slowly drifted into different musical directions with Fela Kuti remaining in Nigeria and Tony Allen relocating to London, and later Paris.
In the year 1988 I got to see Tony Allen perform in the Melkweg (Milky Way) in Amsterdam, at the time the center for African music in the Netherlands. Back then Tony was at the forefront of an intense but short-lived electronic version of Afrobeat that went along with the musical trend of the time. I don’t remember that much about my very first gig, it’s a long time ago and I must have been using substances. But, man, could he play those drums!  Over the years I still played his masterfully produced album NEPA (Never Expect Power Always) regularly, and saw his name pop up on gig announcements now and then, but somehow the musician Tony Allen seemed to fade into obscurity somewhat. Up until 2007 when I suddenly saw a familiar face in OOR Music Magazine. It was no other than Tony Allen together with Damon Albarn (Blur) and Paul Simenon (The Clash) working together in a project called The Good, The Bad and The Queen. The result was a well received album and a live performance that was to be the surprise of the Lowlands Festival of 2007.

FAST FORWARD TO 2009

RASA is located in the inner city of Utrecht and is the city’s place to be for World Music. On a dreary and cold November night, the full moon completely obscured by clouds, I make my way to the venue. The band was still soundchecking when I arrived, due to circumstances they had arrived three hours late.  A quarter to nine we were allowed to enter the hall. The hall has room for those that wish to sit and for those who wish to stand and move. The stage is only knee-high and when the band hit the stage I realized I have never been so close to a band before.
The opening song was “Atuwaba”, the only all-vocal song on the new album, Secret Agent. Our lead vocalist has a clear and soulful voice. Immediately after “Atuwaba” the band went into a superswinging version of “Elewon Po”. This is one of the songs that brings across the vibe of the new album very well. This vibe could be described as a Blaxploitation movie soundtrack meets Fela Kuti in the 21st Century. In the following half hour we were treated to several tracks from the Secret Agent album followed by “One Tree” from Tony’s 2006 release “Lagos No Shaking” which blended in perfectly with the Afrobeat theme of the evening. On every song one of the musicians gave away a solo.
After several tracks it was time to slow things down a bit with a soulful rendering of “Switch” followed by “Busy Body”. Some of the songs contain mild political commentaries but can in no way be compared to Fela Kuti’s political rants. Instead they contain messages about celebrating each day and doing something positive with your life.

AFRO DISCO BEAT

The great thing about this gig was that we could now witness Afrobeat being performed by a band as opposed to an orchestra, with a female lead vocalist as opposed to a male lead vocalist and seeing a group of musicians being more or less engine driven by a master drummer as opposed to being led by a saxophone slinging authoritarian who need not be named.
With Afrobeat becoming a global phenomenon the players are as multi-hued as the music. Allen’s band is no exception and is made up of eight musicians of different ethnic backgrounds. We must remember that although Fela Kuti was heavily influenced by the Black Power movement, he was never a racist. When Tony Allen was on sick leave from Afrika 70 in 1971, Fela Kuti had him replaced by England’s Ginger Baker of Cream fame. Ginger Baker drummed on one of Fela’s albums and Fela contributed to Baker’s forgotten gem Stratavarious (1972).
I noticed that Tony Allen never seemed to look at his drums and I bet he could probably play them blindfolded. Not only can he set out four different rhythms with his four different limbs but also provide lead vocals, if needed, and sing pretty loud for a seventy-one year old.  During one song he seemed to recognize my Fela Kuti t-shirt and smiled. He had a faint grim on his face most of the evening that turned into a smile during his drum solo on the song “One Tree”. In between the song he told us he wouldn’t talk much.  “Usually I tell a few jokes, but I’m not in the mood. We were fucked up.” Apparently altercations with the authorities didn’t stop after Allen’s departure from Afrika 70.
Then it was back to business with one more song from the new album followed by three songs from his early career including “Afro Disco Beat” which was produced by Fela Kuti and Black Voices with a bit of psychedelics thrown in. The crowd seemed to love the music, especially a couple of ladies in the front who were totally grooving out to the music.
Before we knew it all nine players were lined up and left the stage after three gracious bows. Tony shook a couple of hands. As far as the crowd was concerned, this was certainly not the end of the show. One elderly gentlemen was stomping his feet on the floor very hard and several ladies were ululating.

ARIYA

A few minutes later the band was back for one more song: “Ariya”. Now it was time for a more traditional African song with lyrics in Yoruba. Three quarters through the song the band fell still and a musical dialogue ensued between Tony Allen and the bass player. All eyes, including those of the band, were on the master. This song also featured one of Fela’s innovations: the traditional African “call and answer” between the lead singer and the horns section. As well as the flowing guitar riffs from Highlife and Palm and Wine music that were never extensively used in the classic Afrobeat of the Kuti family. After the song ended and the whole outfit had given us four more graceful bows, the gig had come to an end. But the rhythms would stay in my bones for days…

Part two: Backstage interview with Tony Allen.