The Soul of Afrobeat: Tony Allen

Photographer: Bernard Benant

From Lagos to Chicago, Tony Allen takes Afrobeat around the world



That three–syllable word sounds like a jazzy little drum fill and describes the act of playing around with something in an attempt to improve it.

In the late ’80s, German mathematician and audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg was tinkering with digital audio coding, algorithms and compression files (listening to Suzanne Vega’s song “Tom’s Diner” about 700 times as a test) and invented the MP3, allowing people to access and share music files from all over the world. While studying at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg was tinkering with the limitations of social networking websites and created Facebook. It’s amazing what can be achieved by simply tinkering.

In the mid-’60s, Nigerian drummer Tony Allen began tinkering with highlife – the local music found in the nightclubs of the Nigerian port city, Lagos – and ensemble-style ceremonial Yoruba folk drumming, then fusing them with American jazz drumming techniques. It was Allen who, along with the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, co-created the sound known as Afrobeat.

During the late ’60s through the late ’70s, Allen and Kuti collaborated on more than 30 albums, creating some of the most revolutionary music – both in terms of innovation and political messages – of the era. Allen created the inimitable, sophisticated-yet-danceable rhythms over which Kuti wrote his radical songs.

Bob Marley is the face of reggae, James Brown is the face of funk and Kuti is the face of Afrobeat. But Allen is the soul. “Without Tony Allen there would be no Afrobeat,” Kuti once said.


In the late ’70s, Kuti’s fame grew so immense and his lifestyle so lavish that Allen, without any animosity, left the group and set out on his own. Allen has continued to tinker with his unique beat throughout the years, fusing funk, hip-hop and electronic music into a sub-genre of Afrobeat that he calls Afrofunk. At age 74, Allen is still drumming and touring today.

TonyAllen_pullWhether you know it or not, Allen has influenced the sound of many of the most popular musicians and bands in modern pop music – from Paul Simon to Talking Heads, The Roots to Vampire Weekend.

Blur frontman and Gorillaz vocalist/chief songwriter Damon Albarn collaborated with Allen on the 2007 album The Good, the Bad and the Queen, citing Allen as a major influence (the supergroup also featured Paul Simonon of The Clash). In 2012, Albarn and Allen teamed up again, this time enlisting Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, to release Rocket Juice & the Moon. Famed producer and celebrated sonic engineer Brian Eno has called Allen “the greatest drummer in the world.”

So how does it feel to play with the man who co-created an entire genre of music and is perhaps the greatest drummer in the world?

“He’s one of those musicians that fills the stage with an energy,” says Kevin Ford, keyboardist of the Chicago Afrobeat Project – the Windy City-based hybrid Afrobeat band. “He’s a really down-to-earth guy. He likes to laugh. He’ll drink people under the table. He’s a really fun person to be around.”

From behind the keyboard, Ford realized Allen’s penchant for jazz. “Within the first 30 seconds of playing with him I thought, ‘This guy is a jazz drummer,’” says Ford. “It was interesting to hear his instincts to stretch out a little bit and play a little bit more free-form.”


Allen joins the Chicago Afrobeat Project for an eight-city tour this month, making a stop at York College tonight. For Ford and the Chicago Afrobeat Project, getting a chance to play with the co-creator of the sound was a validation of the group’s effort to bring its own fresh blend of Afrobeat to American audiences.

“It’s a great endorsement that he’s willing to play with us. We’re these American, mostly white guys, and this guy – an originator of the style – is supportive,” says Ford. “It makes you feel good about what you’re doing.”

The Chicago Afrobeat project creates its own take on the style by blending Afrobeat with American rock music, reggae, dub and hip-hop. It’s more than just “world music.”

“I’ve never really liked that term; it’s misleading to make it such a small category,” says Ford. “It’s a very American perspective that basically says ‘There’s America, and then there’s all the rest of the world lumped into this one category.’”

“World music” may be a limited term, but the Chicago Afrobeat Project draws inspiration from all over the planet. The group’s 2013 album Nyash UP! (the title is a linguistic mixture of “mash-up” and the Nigerian pidgin English word for “booty”) combines interpretations of Kuti songs with songs from the group’s wide range of influences – from Marvin Gaye to Led Zeppelin. Currently, the band is finishing up an as-yet-untitled record with Allen, due out in early 2015.

Additionally, Allen is set to release his tenth solo album in October: Film of Life (Jazz Village). The album is to be released October 14, and sees Allen once again working with former collaborator Damon Albarn. Here’s a teaser for the album, “Go Back”:

Along with tonight’s performance, Allen conducts a master class on drumming at 3:30 p.m. at the DeMeester Recital Hall, which is free and open to the public.

What’s a lesson that Allen has taught Kevin Ford?

“Here’s a guy that’s over 74 years old, and he’s still touring and throwing down,” says Ford. “It makes me feel like there’s still time to do a lot in music. It’s inspiring. The dude’s a baller.”


Catch the Chicago Afrobeat Project with Tony Allen tonight at the Waldner Performing Arts Center at York College (441 Country Club Road, York). 8 p.m. Free. Click here for more info.


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Posted in Articles, Music, Music – York, York

Mike Andrelczyk is a features editor for Fly Magazine. He is a graduate of Penn State University and currently lives with his wife Stacey in Strasburg. Interests include tennis, playing bad guitar, poetry (poems have appeared in Modern Haiku, The Inquisitive Eater and other journals) and oneirology – the study of dreams – mostly in the form of afternoon naps. His name appears in the title screen of Major League 2.

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