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Tony Allen: Afrobeat’s master on Hugh Masekela, Damon Albarn and friction with Fela Kuti Tony Allen: Afrobeat’s master on Hugh Masekela, Damon Albarn and friction with Fela Kuti
(7 days later)
As a lost album by Allen and Masekela is released, African’s finest drummer remembers the late trumpeter’s brilliant funk – and the chaotic militancy of his most famous partnerAs a lost album by Allen and Masekela is released, African’s finest drummer remembers the late trumpeter’s brilliant funk – and the chaotic militancy of his most famous partner
Tony Allen is the most distinctive drummer Africa ever produced, or at least the most distinctive one who made it into a recording studio. As Fela Kuti’s musical director, he was the co-creator of Afrobeat. Hugh Masekela, who died in 2018, was the continent’s finest horn player, celebrated for fusing jazz with homegrown South African styles. The pair met in Nigeria in the 70s, when Masekela paid two famously wild visits to Lagos, where he spent most of his time hanging out with Kuti and his band. They played together again in the 80s, before finally getting round to recording in 2010.Tony Allen is the most distinctive drummer Africa ever produced, or at least the most distinctive one who made it into a recording studio. As Fela Kuti’s musical director, he was the co-creator of Afrobeat. Hugh Masekela, who died in 2018, was the continent’s finest horn player, celebrated for fusing jazz with homegrown South African styles. The pair met in Nigeria in the 70s, when Masekela paid two famously wild visits to Lagos, where he spent most of his time hanging out with Kuti and his band. They played together again in the 80s, before finally getting round to recording in 2010.
But only now is their collaboration album, Rejoice, being released. It promises to be one of the African albums of the year, although Allen seems a little bemused. “I thought it had been abandoned,” he says.But only now is their collaboration album, Rejoice, being released. It promises to be one of the African albums of the year, although Allen seems a little bemused. “I thought it had been abandoned,” he says.
Not so, says Nick Gold, who co-produced the recordings: “I knew they wanted to work together. They were going to be in the same place at the same time, so I booked a studio for two days, not to make an album, but to see what would happen. It was just an experiment.” Now, he and Allen have supervised the addition of new bass lines and a dash of keys, vibraphone and extra percussion, while leaving the original work untouched. “I said: ‘I’m not touching my drums,’” says Allen. “‘They’ve been done!’ The feeling was unique with Hugh and I together.”Not so, says Nick Gold, who co-produced the recordings: “I knew they wanted to work together. They were going to be in the same place at the same time, so I booked a studio for two days, not to make an album, but to see what would happen. It was just an experiment.” Now, he and Allen have supervised the addition of new bass lines and a dash of keys, vibraphone and extra percussion, while leaving the original work untouched. “I said: ‘I’m not touching my drums,’” says Allen. “‘They’ve been done!’ The feeling was unique with Hugh and I together.”
What makes Rejoice so special is its brave minimalism – much of it is drums and bass matched to Masekela’s horn. It brilliantly showcases Allen’s unique talent. Now 80, he is still the go-to drummer for Damon Albarn and many other younger musicians. Constantly inventive yet never flashy, he has a style that is somehow dominant, but never intrusive. Allen has a deep, quiet voice; when he starts discussing his technique, his hands and feet begin beating out rhythm patterns on the table and the floor, almost instinctively.What makes Rejoice so special is its brave minimalism – much of it is drums and bass matched to Masekela’s horn. It brilliantly showcases Allen’s unique talent. Now 80, he is still the go-to drummer for Damon Albarn and many other younger musicians. Constantly inventive yet never flashy, he has a style that is somehow dominant, but never intrusive. Allen has a deep, quiet voice; when he starts discussing his technique, his hands and feet begin beating out rhythm patterns on the table and the floor, almost instinctively.
Masekela and Allen worked out nothing in advance. “I had drum patterns in my mind,” says Allen. “Different movements, fast and slow; different structures. I just wanted him to play his trumpet to my patterns.” Masekela obliged, writing melodies on the spot. Much of the set is instrumental, but it includes songs that already sound like Masekela classics. Robbers, Thugs and Muggers is a sturdy clash of South African township styles and west African percussion, while on Never he switches to Afrobeat, with a tribute to the man who brought them together in the chorus: “Lagos never gonna be de same – never! – without Fela.”Masekela and Allen worked out nothing in advance. “I had drum patterns in my mind,” says Allen. “Different movements, fast and slow; different structures. I just wanted him to play his trumpet to my patterns.” Masekela obliged, writing melodies on the spot. Much of the set is instrumental, but it includes songs that already sound like Masekela classics. Robbers, Thugs and Muggers is a sturdy clash of South African township styles and west African percussion, while on Never he switches to Afrobeat, with a tribute to the man who brought them together in the chorus: “Lagos never gonna be de same – never! – without Fela.”
Masekela first met Kuti and Allen at an important turning point in his career. He had escaped from apartheid-era South Africa and notched up a hit single, Grazing in the Grass, in his new home of the US, but then found himself in trouble. His house in Malibu, California, was raided and he avoided prison on drugs charges only because there had been no proper search warrant. His songs about Vietnam and migrant workers were too extreme for many laid-back 70s audiences, so he moved to west Africa to look for new inspiration. He managed to get funding to record with African musicians, but Allen remembers that the month he spent with Kuti was “well crazy, smoking the weed and things”.Masekela first met Kuti and Allen at an important turning point in his career. He had escaped from apartheid-era South Africa and notched up a hit single, Grazing in the Grass, in his new home of the US, but then found himself in trouble. His house in Malibu, California, was raided and he avoided prison on drugs charges only because there had been no proper search warrant. His songs about Vietnam and migrant workers were too extreme for many laid-back 70s audiences, so he moved to west Africa to look for new inspiration. He managed to get funding to record with African musicians, but Allen remembers that the month he spent with Kuti was “well crazy, smoking the weed and things”.
When Masekela returned to Lagos in 1977, the situation was even more crazy. He had been invited to play at Festac, a high-profile international festival strongly supported by the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo. Kuti refused to take part, Allen says, because he insisted that the government buy copies of a book on African history, The Black Man of the Nile and His Family, and distribute them to all the guests – which they refused to do.When Masekela returned to Lagos in 1977, the situation was even more crazy. He had been invited to play at Festac, a high-profile international festival strongly supported by the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo. Kuti refused to take part, Allen says, because he insisted that the government buy copies of a book on African history, The Black Man of the Nile and His Family, and distribute them to all the guests – which they refused to do.
Obasanjo was furious, and became even more angry when he learned that the celebrity Festac guests were spending their time at Kuti’s club, the Shrine. From behind his drum kit, Allen presided over some extraordinary all-night sessions. “Hugh Masekela was there, and Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, and Stevie Wonder – they would all come to jam,” Allen says. “Fela was giving them palm wine to drink. But nothing was recorded. It was live business.”Obasanjo was furious, and became even more angry when he learned that the celebrity Festac guests were spending their time at Kuti’s club, the Shrine. From behind his drum kit, Allen presided over some extraordinary all-night sessions. “Hugh Masekela was there, and Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, and Stevie Wonder – they would all come to jam,” Allen says. “Fela was giving them palm wine to drink. But nothing was recorded. It was live business.”
Obasanjo got his revenge when armed troops stormed Kuti’s compound, which he had named the “independent” Kalakuta Republic; during the attack, Kuti’s mother sustained injuries from which she later died. “They burned his house down – he got his arse kicked in the end,” says Allen, who escaped thanks to having a gig at the Shrine that night. “When I wasn’t playing, I was always at the Kalakuta. [Working] saved me that day.”Obasanjo got his revenge when armed troops stormed Kuti’s compound, which he had named the “independent” Kalakuta Republic; during the attack, Kuti’s mother sustained injuries from which she later died. “They burned his house down – he got his arse kicked in the end,” says Allen, who escaped thanks to having a gig at the Shrine that night. “When I wasn’t playing, I was always at the Kalakuta. [Working] saved me that day.”
Allen had joined Kuti’s band Koola Lobitos in the mid-60s and was a founding member of his legendary Africa ’70 group in 1969. But in late 1978 he decided to quit, furious that Kuti – now married to 27 “queens” – was becoming increasingly chaotic, owed him money and had failed to respect the musical director who had helped him create Afrobeat’s heady fusion of jazz, funk and African styles.Allen had joined Kuti’s band Koola Lobitos in the mid-60s and was a founding member of his legendary Africa ’70 group in 1969. But in late 1978 he decided to quit, furious that Kuti – now married to 27 “queens” – was becoming increasingly chaotic, owed him money and had failed to respect the musical director who had helped him create Afrobeat’s heady fusion of jazz, funk and African styles.
“I couldn’t stand the lack of organisation,” Allen says. “If you put everyone together who was working – band, singers, dancers, management – there would be 24 to 28 people. But we went on tour with 70 people, so there would be over 40 people in the hotel spending money and doing nothing. And the outstanding money couldn’t be paid – too many people not working! I could understand what was happening with his militancy. It’s OK challenging the government for their wrongdoings. But what about him?”“I couldn’t stand the lack of organisation,” Allen says. “If you put everyone together who was working – band, singers, dancers, management – there would be 24 to 28 people. But we went on tour with 70 people, so there would be over 40 people in the hotel spending money and doing nothing. And the outstanding money couldn’t be paid – too many people not working! I could understand what was happening with his militancy. It’s OK challenging the government for their wrongdoings. But what about him?”
Allen knows how important he was to Kuti. “Without me, he is not going to play. If I’m sick, there is no work. But if he’s sick, we could play. So tell me, who is the master, then?” What, then, of Kuti’s recordings with Ginger Baker, a drummer with a very different style, who travelled to Lagos to meet Kuti? “I just let him play his way. I steadied the music, so he could do anything he wanted. If I’m not there, Ginger Baker cannot play with Fela. If it’s Ginger Baker alone backing Fela’s music, it won’t work.”Allen knows how important he was to Kuti. “Without me, he is not going to play. If I’m sick, there is no work. But if he’s sick, we could play. So tell me, who is the master, then?” What, then, of Kuti’s recordings with Ginger Baker, a drummer with a very different style, who travelled to Lagos to meet Kuti? “I just let him play his way. I steadied the music, so he could do anything he wanted. If I’m not there, Ginger Baker cannot play with Fela. If it’s Ginger Baker alone backing Fela’s music, it won’t work.”
Deciding that “two captains can’t be in one ship”, Allen went off on his own. He stayed in Lagos for a while, but by 1984 he had moved to Harlesden in north-west London, where he began gigging with the South African drummer and band leader Julian Bahula. Masekela had moved to London, too, “and he came to jam with us and we talked about one day working together. It took 16 years, but everything has its time.”Deciding that “two captains can’t be in one ship”, Allen went off on his own. He stayed in Lagos for a while, but by 1984 he had moved to Harlesden in north-west London, where he began gigging with the South African drummer and band leader Julian Bahula. Masekela had moved to London, too, “and he came to jam with us and we talked about one day working together. It took 16 years, but everything has its time.”
By the time they did eventually record, Allen’s life had changed yet again. He had moved to Paris (he now has French and Nigerian passports) and begun to experiment with new styles, arguing: “I don’t want to be stagnant or bored. It’s evolution. I can’t keep doing the same things.” His 1999 album, Black Voices, saw him mixing Afrobeat with dub and electronica. As younger fans began to discover his music, he was given a boost by Damon Albarn, who sang: “Tony Allen ... really got me dancing,” on Blur’s 2000 hit Music Is My Radar.By the time they did eventually record, Allen’s life had changed yet again. He had moved to Paris (he now has French and Nigerian passports) and begun to experiment with new styles, arguing: “I don’t want to be stagnant or bored. It’s evolution. I can’t keep doing the same things.” His 1999 album, Black Voices, saw him mixing Afrobeat with dub and electronica. As younger fans began to discover his music, he was given a boost by Damon Albarn, who sang: “Tony Allen ... really got me dancing,” on Blur’s 2000 hit Music Is My Radar.
Albarn is now “like family – I love him”; their collaborations have included powerful songs such as Go Back and Allen’s work with the Good, the Bad & the Queen. He says that their second album, 2018’s Merrie Land, was constructed like Rejoice – “written on my drum patterns in the studio”. His plans for this year include working on what he calls Albarn’s “travel album”, playing with young musicians in Nigeria, London, Paris and the US, “because I want to take care of youngsters – they have messages and I want to bring them on my beat”. Albarn is now “like family – I love him”; their collaborations have included powerful songs such as Go Back and Allen’s work with the Good, the Bad & the Queen. He says that their second album, 2018’s Merrie Land, was constructed like Rejoice – “written on my drum patterns in the studio”. His plans for this year include working on what he calls his “travel album”, playing with young musicians in Nigeria, London, Paris and the US, “because I want to take care of youngsters – they have messages and I want to bring them on my beat” (Albarn may well be involved too).
He has organised a tour to promote Rejoice, “along with Hugh’s classics and some of my own stuff”. He will lead a five-piece that will include the South African trumpeter Claude Deppa. He says it will be “different from the record. Hugh was a funky guy. He had a unique style.” But he is always keen to get to the next thing, complaining that the release of Rejoice has “interrupted” his endless flow: “It’s an obstruction!”He has organised a tour to promote Rejoice, “along with Hugh’s classics and some of my own stuff”. He will lead a five-piece that will include the South African trumpeter Claude Deppa. He says it will be “different from the record. Hugh was a funky guy. He had a unique style.” But he is always keen to get to the next thing, complaining that the release of Rejoice has “interrupted” his endless flow: “It’s an obstruction!”
Rejoice is released on World Circuit on 20 MarchRejoice is released on World Circuit on 20 March
• This article was updated on Wednesday 25 March to clarify that the “travel album” is a Tony Allen project.