By IS’HAQ MODIBBO KAWU
We lost Tony Allen, one of the greatest drummers in the history of popular music. His collaboration with Fela created Afrobeat. As has been said, they fused Nigerian sounds with jazz, to give the world Afrobeat. He provided the percussive wings on which Fela’s music flew into our lives and the world.
Together, they reflected very completely, the remarkable social upheavals of the 1960s through to the 1980s: the civil rights movement; African renaissance; the postcolonial developments and military dictatorships and the culture of resistance that Fela’s art represented and reflected. A tribute this morning, said of Tony Allen’s drumming, that it was “Rhythm that could bring the house down, or flow gently like a river”.
According to his manager, he died suddenly at the age of 79 on April 30, 2020, in Paris where he has lived for decades. He is one of the greatest cultural Ambassadors in our country.
Tony Allen’s genius was inextricably linked with the genius of Fela. I think Tony left Fela and the Africa 70 band (that he led), after the release of the song, “Zombie”, which I believe is the most artistically complete of ALL Fela’s songs!
Listen to “Zombie” again, but especially Tony Allen’s drumming. The timings; the breaks; the manner he allows Fela to weave through the incredibly radical lyrics, and the structure of the entire song. It is just perfection!
When he left, the shape/structure of Fela’s music changed (and I think it also suffered), artistically. What followed was the third, and final stage of Fela’s art; the Egypt 80 period, when Lekan Animashaun, the saxophonist, became the leader of the band. The artistic structure changed; the political content of the music became more explicit and Fela himself had gradually lost the physical power to play the sax. He used to play alto, tenor and baritone saxophones in his most creative phase and younger years. But his power had waned; he played the electric piano more and more. He even introduced a second bass guitar to his music which was very unusual in the structures of music. And the tempo of the music became slower.
I think Fela missed Tony Allen, but the genius (and the inherent man’s pride) didn’t allow him to accept that.
Tony Allen spoke in an interview last year about the troubled relationship the two geniuses had. He said Fela was just incomparable.
That was the man who died yesterday at 79. The BBC in a tribute described him as “probably the greatest drummer that ever lived”
And you know what? He was a Nigerian!
We lost a great artist and an ambassador of Nigerian culture. But in a country with a median age of 17.9 years, and over 200 million people, most of our people who are mainly young today might never have even heard about the great drummer, Tony Oladipo Allen!