Tony Allen, Afrobeat's Foundational Drummer, Has Died At Age 79

Apr 30, 2020
Originally published on May 1, 2020 8:51 pm

Drummer Tony Allen has died at age 79. He is widely hailed as one of the founders of Afrobeat alongside his longtime musical partner Fela Kuti, with whom he played for 15 years.

Allen died Wednesday evening in Paris of a heart attack, his manager, Eric Trosset, told NPR. Trosset told Agence France-Presse that Allen took ill in the afternoon and was taken to the Hôpital européen Georges-Pompidou, where he died.

Behind the kit, Allen used his whole body — laying out intricate polyrhythms with all four limbs. (He was so dexterous, it often seemed like he had more than four.) "Without Tony Allen," Kuti famously remarked, "there would be no Afrobeat."

Allen was born Tony Oladipo Allen in Lagos, Nigeria in 1940. He didn't begin playing the drums until age 18 — but once he began, that was it. Just months later, while he was working as an electrical technician for a radio station in his native Lagos, he announced to his disappointed parents that he intended to become a musician.

Allen met Kuti in the early 1960s, when both were gigging around Lagos. By 1964, they were playing together: first American-style jazz, and then, for about five years, a more African-inflected, highlife jazz. In 1969, they formed the legendary band Africa 70.

Allen came of age idolizing such American jazz drummers as Gene Krupa, Art Blakey and Max Roach. As he told NPR's Weekend Edition in 2010, "Fela wrote like a singer; I write like a drummer."

That highly combustible mix was exactly the magic of Afrobeat: thickly layered horns and soaring vocals with wry lyrics, laid over an unforgettably mighty, driving groove. It was a sweaty, exuberant amalgamation of African styles like highlife and juju, American jazz, and something entirely new and thoroughly self-confident. More than being just Africa 70's drummer, Allen was its musical director.

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In a blazing run, Allen recorded more than 30 albums with Kuti and Africa 70 — including the classics Shakara, Expensive Shit, Sorrow Tears and Blood and Zombie. The two also recorded three albums under Allen's name: 1975's Jealousy, 1977's Progress and 1979's No Accommodation For Lagos.

But eventually they split apart, sparring over money, credits and royalties — not to mention Allen's distaste for what he called Kuti's "militarism" and the constant entourage around Kuti, which Allen found parasitic. Allen left Africa 70 in 1979. He went first to London, and then settled in Paris.

Later in his career, Allen ranged broadly in terms of his musical tastes — exploring everything from Afrofunk and American jazz to rap and electronica. His later collaborators included singer Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, the Clash's Paul Simonon, and guitarist Simon Tong of the Verve who together recorded as The Good, the Bad & the Queen.

Allen released another album, Rejoice, just last month; it was a collaboration with the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who died in 2018. The two artists recorded together in 2010, but the album was not finished until the summer of 2019.

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Drummer Tony Allen is widely hailed as one of the founders of Afrobeat, alongside his longtime musical partner Fela Kuti. The 79-year-old Allen died Wednesday evening in Paris of a heart attack. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has this appreciation.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Sitting behind his drum kit, Tony Allen used his whole body to lay out intricate polyrhythms with all four limbs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELA KUTI'S "EXPENSIVE S***")

TSIOULCAS: Allen didn't begin playing drums until he was 18 years old. But just months later, he became a professional musician. Allen met Fela Kuti in the early 1960s in Lagos, Nigeria. And in 1969, they formed the legendary band Africa 70.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELA KUTI'S "ZOMBIE")

TSIOULCAS: Allen wasn't just the band's drummer; he was its musical director, layering horns and soaring vocals, often with highly political lyrics over a driving groove.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZOMBIE")

FELA KUTI: (Singing in non-English language).

TSIOULCAS: In 1979, Allen left the band in part because he felt he wasn't being recognized and compensated for his contributions. But he continued to be a musical adventurer, dipping into everything from afro funk to electronica. His last album was released only last month. It's a collaboration with the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY ALLEN AND HUGH MASEKELA'S "ROBBERS, THUGS AND MUGGERS (O'GALAJANI)")

TSIOULCAS: Some of Tony Allen's own music was explicitly political, but he believed in rejoicing in the small things of life, too, as he told NPR in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TONY ALLEN: Celebration is everything. That's the way we look at it. It's like, every day we celebrate.

TSIOULCAS: It's a message he delivered through his exuberant music for more than five decades.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.