It’s hard not to be a little overcome in the presence of afrobeat originator Tony Allen. After all, Brian Eno has described him as “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived.” Since the early sixties he’s been a pioneering force in contemporary African music, and his influence can be heard across a broad spectrum of musical styles. I asked Tony what first inspired him to pick up the drum sticks.
“I wanted to create my own style of music. God gave me a gift, and I followed my own path.”
He pauses to reflect for a moment, and adds “I always wanted to be different than other drummers, that’s why I’ve never tried to do anything else than afrobeat.”
Afrobeat was founded with the aim to provide social commentary on the inequalities inherent in African society. As a part of Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70, Allen was a foundational force in its development. He is quick to note that the problems afrobeat confronts are not exclusive to the continent, and in fact much of the drive behind the movement was motivated by struggles overseas.
“The social problems are not concentrated in Africa. Don’t forget that Fela had to go to the USA in 1969, meeting with the US black people to start to realize his Africanism. As soon as we came back from the states, he started his fight against the governments and the dictature.”
A thoughtful expression crosses his faces as he muses “One sometimes has to move away from his own country to be completely aware of his home.”
Rather than adopt the same style of protest that his American contemporaries were developing, Allen states that he was always drawn to create something unique.
“I always wanted to sound different than U.S. jazz or hip hop artists. I hoped that maybe this alternative music vision would be able to effect something in our society.”
With such a long history, I ask Tony whether he feels afrobeat might have lost some of its political urgency, whether it is still as politically charged.
“As long as African people will suffer of many diseases, there will always be artists fighting for them.”
His influence on popular music cannot be understated. The past twenty years have seen him collaborate with many big name artists. It would seem he has a soft spot for Blur and Gorillaz front man Damon Albarn.
“My aim has always been to fuse afrobeat with other styles of music and to spread it all over the world. I love to experience my drumming with others, like my different collaborations with Damon Albarn.”
His work with Albarn has included drumming on The Good, The Bad and The Queen album released in 2007, and he assures me there will be more to come from the pair, among other works.
“I am currently working with Damon Albarn on a new album project with other guests. I am also involved in Africa Express, a series of events promoting African music. We’ve had some hectic shows at Glastonbury, Liverpool, Lagos and Kinshasa, and there’s more to come in 2009.”
The world of music has changed a lot since Allen first taught himself to drum, but he remains optimistic about the industry as a whole. Whatever some might say about music losing some of its soul, it remains essential to him.
“It is vital for me. I don’t care what people may say about it.”
Allen shows no signs of retiring as time goes on, with his many collaborations in the works as well as a new album ready for release.
“My new album “Secret Agent” will be released next June under World Circuit Records. But I won’t play my new album in this Australian tour.. next time for sure!”