The Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who is credited with creating Afrobeat along with his old bandmate Fela Kuti, died suddenly at the age of 79 in Paris on Thursday, his manager said. “We don’t know the exact cause of death,” Eric Trosset said, adding it was not linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
“He was in great shape,” said Trosset. “It was quite sudden. I spoke to him at 1pm then two hours later he was sick and taken to Pompidou hospital, where he died.”
Allen was the drummer and musical director of Fela Kuti’s band, Africa ’70, in the 60s and 70s. During that time the pair created Afrobeat, combining west African musical styles such as highlife and fuji music with US jazz and funk. Afrobeat went on to become one of the totemic genres of 20th-century African music.
Over Allen’s thrilling beat, Kuti laid out his revolutionary and pan-African message, which led him to become one of the abiding icons of the struggle for freedom across the continent. “Few people have the kind of communication that Fela and I had when we played music,” Allen said.
Allen and Kuti recorded about 40 albums as Africa ’70, before parting ways after a mythic, 26-year collaboration, with Allen citing Kuti’s disorganisation and debts to him as the reason for his departure. Such was the hole that Allen left in his band, Kuti required several drummers to replace him.
Of his singular style, Allen said: “I try to make my drums sing and turn them into an orchestra. I don’t bash my drums. Instead of bashing, I caress. If you caress your wife, you’ll get good things from your wife; if you beat her, up I’m sure she’ll be your enemy.”
Artists including Major Lazer, Gilles Peterson and Flea have paid tribute to Allen on Twitter.
The epic Tony Allen, the greatest drummer on earth has left us. What a wildman with a massive, kind and free heart and the deepest one-of-a-kind groove. Fela Kuti did not invent afrobeat, Fela and Tony birthed it… https://t.co/qXqMAP7QzT
— Flea (@flea333) May 1, 2020
RIP TONY ALLEN. THE GOAT AMONGST GOATS. DO YOUR RESEARCH. LEGENDS NEVER DIE. THE INVENTOR OF RHYTHM #Afrobeat
— MAJOR LAZER (@MAJORLAZER) April 30, 2020
Merci Tony Allen….https://t.co/Oizisc8wWd
— Gilles Peterson (@gillespeterson) April 30, 2020
Born in Lagos in 1940, Allen taught himself to play drums at the age of 18, drawing inspiration from the US jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, as well as contemporary African music. He has attributed his versatility to the need to make a living as a jobbing musician in Lagos in the early 60s. “Latin American, African horns, jazz, highlife … you had to be able to play it all because in the club they asked for it,” he said.
In 1969, touring the US for the first time with Kuti, a meeting with west coast jazz drummer Frank Butler inspired him to practise every morning on pillows, making his sticks bounce off them while he was rolling. “It adds flexibility,” he said. “Very effective. Effortless – that’s what I tried to catch from [Butler].” As part of Kuti’s band, he would sometimes drum for six hours without a break.
The British musician and producer Brian Eno has called Allen “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived”.
In 1984, Allen moved to London, and by the turn of the millennium had settled in Paris. In the 2000s, he added dub and electronica to his solo output – sometimes to the ire of Afrobeat purists – and became an in-demand collaborator for a younger generation of musicians, among them Jarvis Cocker, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Sébastien Tellier.
On Blur’s 2000 song Music Is My Radar, Damon Albarn sang: “Tony Allen really got me dancing.” The pair would begin regular collaborations soon after. Allen sometimes participated in Albarn’s Africa Express residencies on the continent. He was the drummer in the supergroup, the Good, the Bad & the Queen, also featuring Clash bassist Paul Simonon, which released albums in 2007 and 2018. In 2008, Allen, Albarn and Flea formed the supergroup Rocket Juice and the Moon.
Allen was dismissive, however, of a wave of Afrobeat-inspired indie bands such as Vampire Weekend that emerged at the end of the 2000s. “They write the basslines and the horns … but what about the drums? The drummer comes and doesn’t know what to play, because that is the bit with the discipline. He will play what he knows, which doesn’t fit the music.”
His most recent album was Rejoice, a collaboration with Hugh Masekela. The pair met in Nigeria in the 70s, when Allen was playing with Kuti.
This year he planned to work on what he described as a “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,” he told the Guardian.
Allen, who described himself as a “simple, gentle guy”, lived in the Paris suburb Courbevoie.