Tony Allen - Biography

Tony Allen is a songwriter and percussionist from Nigeria who was one of the principal architects of the Afrobeat sound (along with other integral players such as saxophonist, trumpet player and singer Fela Kuti and lesser known acts like Orlando Julis). Allen was born in Lagos as Tony Oladipo Allen in 1940 of mixed Nigerian and Ghanaian parentage. In Allen's youth he worked as an engineer at a radio station in Nigeria. There and at home he was exposed to the highlife, Jùjú and Yoruba sounds of West Africa. The eighteen-year-old Allen began to teach himself the drums while working this job. Less than a year later he was playing professionally.

Allen soon began playing in combos around Lagos, mostly performing highlife. He got a job playing claves with Sir Victor Olaiya's highlife band, The Cool Cats. Allen would graduate to drums when The Cool Cats’ drummer left. It was in 1964 that he met fellow Nigerian musician, Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, better known as Fela Kuti. The two began to play together, mostly in the American jazz idiom. Soon the two began drift towards the music of their homeland without forsaking their love of American music either. Hints of Jùjú, highlife and Yoruba drumming began to make appearances next to western instruments like the saxophone. Allen became the drummer in Kuti's band, Koola Lobitos, which they coined the term “highlife jazz” to describe. Though the group did not make huge waves at the time, it did form the nucleus of what would later be a hugely influential group.

In 1969, Allen and Kuti took their highlife jazz outfit to tour the US. It was on this trip that they would have a whole new world of sound and aesthetics revealed to them. There they discovered records by drum virtuosos like Max Roach and Art Blakey. They also discovered the burgeoning funk scene in America through records by James Brown and others. Allen and Kuti began to rethink their dynamic. Upon returning to Nigeria they formed Africa 70, a group that would pioneer what would come to be known as Afrobeat. As Africa 70 they began to take pronounced political stances on many issues facing them in their home country, including but not limited to the oppressive Nigerian government. Africa 70 toured the US and although they were well received by fans and fellow musicians, they experienced racial discrimination and financial difficulties.

Ginger Baker, drummer for the British rock band Cream, fell in love with the music of Kuti and Africa in general. He soon began to spend time with Kuti and Allen in Nigeria. Baker and Kuti had originally met in London while Kuti was there studying music in the early ‘60s. They all played a slew of shows in the ‘70s together which would later result in the record Live! With Ginger Baker (1971 Regal Zonophone).

Africa 70 began to release albums such as Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1971 African Songs), which was originally to be released by EMI. Upon receiving it, however, the label passed on it. Na Poi (1971 Nigeria EMI), Open & Close (1971 Nigeria EMI) and Shakara (1972 Nigeria EMI) followed. The band was receiving a lot of attention from international audiences in the know. Back home they were legendary with music fans and, unfortunately, the government as well. In 1974, the Nigerian government conducted the first of what would be a slew of raids on townships. As a result, Allen was arrested and jailed for three days.

In 1975, Allen began to release his own solo albums, starting with Jealousy (1975 Sound Workshop). The album was credited to Tony Allen and The Africa 70. Kuti would lend both his saxophone and production skills. Allen's next album would be his much lauded Progress (1977 Coconut), which served as a template for many drummers. Around this time, the situation with Africa 70 became increasingly difficult for Allen and other members. Raids on their compound were increasing in regularity and Kuti, famous for being something of an egomaniac, was hard to work with. Kuti insisted on taking most of the royalties from the music and attempted to take most of the credit as well. Kuti did write the music, as well as plot out parts for each individual musician – with the exception of Allen, who wrote his own parts. He was the only member of the group with total artistic freedom. Allen had also been playing with Kuti since the beginning of their careers. Allen felt that he was responsible for the group's sound more than any other member and so he should receive a larger share of the royalties. Kuti wouldn’t budge. Allen recorded one more album with the assistance of Kuti entitled No Accommodation for Lagos (1979 Phonogram), which was comprised of two side-long tracks entitled "No Accommodation for Lagos" and "African Message." Many have called this album Allen's finest work. It is definitely one of his most famous albums. Soon after Allen left Africa 70 and formed his own group, Tony Allen and his Afro Messengers. Other players, who were tired of the way Kuti ran his business, left with Allen and recorded the album No Discrimination (1979 Shanu Olu Records).

Since the ‘80s, Allen has recorded several solo albums as well as performing on albums by other artists like King Sunny Adé, Manu Dibango and French group Air. In the ‘90s, Allen began to experiment with more contemporary sounds like electronica, R&B, dub and hip-hop in a style that Allen refers to as “Afrofunk.”
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