Two of the most famous musicians of the 20th century – Brian Eno and Fela Kuti – considered Tony Allen as one of the greatest percussionists in history. “Without Tony Allen,” Fela said, “there would be no Afrobeat.”
Allen, the man who put steel in the spine of Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 and Egypt 80 organizations and most recently worked on an expansive project with Jeff Mills, has died in his now-native Paris, Sahara Reporters was the first to report.
Tony Allen first became known as the thunderous drummer as part of Koola Lobitos, which later evolved into Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70. His technique was noted by reviewers and other musicians, while other drummers were astonished by his ability to fill the tape without overdubs. It was thanks to his ability to play each of his arms and legs in a different time signature. “That’s the only way not to get bored,” he once told a reporter for a world music magazine.
The Lagos-born Allen was a self-taught percussionist and would later work with techno pioneer Jeff Mills on a series of live performances around the world and the 2018 record Tomorrow Comes The Harvest.
“I remember after the first time that he played, I had to ask him some questions because it was so interesting what he was doing,” Mills said of Allen. “I kept noticing what he was doing with the snare. Literally almost every five or six seconds he would play something completely different on the snare, so after we stopped the first time I asked him, where was his technique from?
“He explained to me that in Lagos, in Nigeria, when he was young and growing up, they speak so many languages because there’s such a melting pot of people from everywhere, that the average person speaks six or seven languages, and that somehow with the snare, he’s in a way relating to the social aspect and the social pattern of the city in Lagos.
“That made me understand the way that he played and how he treats each drum to kind of symbolize certain things. Then once he understood that I was curious about the way that he was playing, he began to explain more, like the relationship between the hi-hat, the kick drum and the snare, and gave me a small demonstration and showed me. Then I thought about that and then came up with something slightly different on the drum machine.”
Allen’s cause of death and memorial services have not yet been released.
Photo via tonyallenafrobeat.com