Late Tony Allen
By Benjamin Njoku
Tony Allen’s death on Thursday, after he suffered a heart attack in far away Paris had indeed marked the end of an era in African music.
The pioneering Nigerian drummer and a co-founder of the Afro-beat musical genre would be remembered as one of the greatest drummers who had ever lived. Even though, he’s no more, Tony Allen had left a legacy that would outlive his generation.
Fela, who died in 1997, once said that “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afro-beat.” The wise saying has resonated today, as the world mourns the demise of this great drummer of African descent.
Popular Beninois singer, Angelique Kidjo told the BBC’s Newsday programme that she had been hit hard by both Allen’s death and the passing of Cameroonian saxophone legend Manu Dibango in March.
“What I want to remember from them is our musical conversation, our laughter, our joy. They are gone, but they are not gone for me,” she said.
In an Instagram post, Kidjo wrote also, “ Bye bye Tony Allen, beautiful spirit and friend who has changed the history of African music. I was so lucky to work with you on my last 2 albums.”
Edward Adeshina described Tony Allen as the greatest drummer to come out of Africa, adding “A pioneer, a legend, one of my biggest inspirations. Thanks for your music and thanks for giving me your drumstick at Village Underground that time.”
Paying tribute to the late drummer, veteran actor, dramatist, folk singer, poet and playwright, Jimi Solanke said “ Just getting ready to start writing my paper on your programme, Leland Babalola and the London group are planning on your behalf. Oh Death!!!”
“Well, you have reached your destination on this life\s trip. Then the drumsticks are retired to give the drums a break.”
Described by Brian Eno and Damon Albarn as the greatest drummer on the planet, Allen was best known for performing in and musically directing Kuti’s band, Africa ’70 in the Sixties and Seventies.
The duo recorded more than 30 albums together, before going their separate ways in the late Seventies.
In the 90s, Allen worked with musicians such as Albarn, Flea (from Red Hot Chilli Peppers) and Jeff Mills, releasing his last album Rejoice, a collaboration with the late Hugh Masekela, in March 2020.
The Afrobeat sound, which rose to prominence in Nigeria in the 1970s, combined organ riffs with West African drum patterns and brass instruments.
Allen’s drumming was a key part of the rhythmic structure that underpinned the fusion of jazz, funk and West African melodies. His death at 79, which was announced by his manger, Eric Trosset has been generating reactions across the world. Until his death, Tony Allen lived in the Paris suburb Courbevoie.
“Farewell Tony! Your eyes saw what most couldn’t see. You are the coolest person on Earth! As you used to say, ‘There is no end’,” Trosset said in a tribute posted on Facebook.
In later years, Allen worked with a broad range of artists, including musician Brian Eno who referred to Allen “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”.
Allen recorded more than 30 albums with Kuti and his group, Africa ’70, which fused jazz, funk and African traditional singing.
The songs were usually more than 10 minutes long and Kuti’s lyrics were often diatribes against corruption, authoritarian African leaders and Nigeria’s military regimes.
“We don’t know the exact cause of death,” Trosset said, adding it was not linked to the coronavirus. “He was in great shape, it was quite sudden. I spoke to him at 1pm [11:00 GMT], then two hours later he was sick and taken to Pompidou hospital where he died.”