Tony Allen, the Afrobeat pioneer who created history with sticks and drums

As it was when Fela Anikulapo-Kuti breathed his last in 1997, it's an incredibly dark day for Afrobeat. And an incredibly sad day for music. Tony Allen, the legendary drummer and co-founder of Afrobeat, is dead.

Allen died in Paris on Thursday, the last day of April, 2020. His death was sudden. According to his manager Eric Trosset who spoke with the 79-year-old master drummer shortly before his death, Allen sounded as fit as a fiddle just two hours before he was pronounced dead.

"He was in great shape, it was quite sudden," Trosset told AFP. "I spoke to him at 1pm then two hours later he was sick and taken to Pompidou hospital, where he died."

It would be a disservice to Allen to describe him as anything other than a pioneer of Afrobeat for his contribution to the unique genre which incorporates elements of highlife, as well as traditional Nigerian and African music.

Hours after the devastating news, the Egypt 80 band led by Fela's son Seun Kuti with whom Allen continued to perform, said in a short but powerful statement on Twitter, "The king of sticks is no more."

Born in Lagos in 1940 to a Nigerian father and a Ghanaian mother, Allen, the oldest of six children, was only 24 when he became an acquaintance of Fela in 1964, becoming an original member of Kuti's "Koola Lobitos" highlife-jazz band. Six years before the historical union between the pair, an 18-year-old Allen had been mesmerized by the talent of American jazz drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, and he sought to beat them at their own game by self tutoring. It wasn't long before his talent began to manifest.

In his 2015 autobiography, Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat, Allen recalled his meeting with Fela, "The first thing he asked was 'Are you the one who said that you are the best drummer in this country?' I laughed and told him, 'I never said so.' He asked me if I could play jazz and I said yes. He asked me if I could take solos and I said yes again."

Allen also said in the book, "I was looking for something. I wanted to be myself. I played like everybody already but there was no point in continuing doing that because I'd be bored completely."

Tony Allen
Tony Allen during one of his performances. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

And find himself he did. By the turn of the 70s, Allen's dexterity on the drums had endeared millions of people across the world to the unique music genre, as he went on to create over 30 critically acclaimed albums with Fela and his Africa '70 group, including Gentleman, 'Yellow Fever', 'Sorrow, Tears and Blood', and 'Zombie'.

Like the sun and the moon obey God's command without grumbling, so did the sticks obey Allen's command. Where Fela's rebellious voice reverberated in halls and arenas full of thousands of music lovers, Allen's message was loud and clear through his sticks and drums. The rhythm the drummer's exuberant sticks created when they hit on the tough leather pinned to a round box with clips, jostled lovers of music out of their seats as Fela's fierce revolt sunk in.

The joy in Allen's eyes when he drummed was unquantifiable, it was as if only his sticks could do no wrong in his eyes.

Sadly, the peerless synergy between Allen and Fela that promised to forever bond them as 'brothers' began to show signs of weakness in the mid 70s, when dissension began to grow in the ranks of Africa '70 and arguments over royalties and recognition grew in intensity. The pair would eventually split up in 1978, even as Fela would go on to have sizable contributions on his former ally's first three solo albums – 'Jealousy', 'Progress', and 'No Accommodation For Lagos'. Fela struggled to fill the void created by Allen's departure.

In his autobiography, Allen cited the increasingly volatile situation around Fela's political activism, particularly the army's attack on the musician's compound in 1977, as what led to the final nail in the coffin of their separation.

"With me and Fela, it's a question of telepathy," Allen said of his relationship with the musician. "That is why I was able to stick around this guy for 15 years — you know, I never did that with anyone before; the maximum time I stayed in a band was one year."

Tony Allen
Tony Allen is arguably the best drummer that ever lived.

Shortly after the separation, Allen formed his own group and recorded 'No Discrimination' in 1980 and 'N.E.P.A.' in 1985. During that period, Allen also worked with renowned musicians such as King Sunny Adé, Ray Lema and Manu Dibango. After relocating to Paris, the drummer continued to work on new projects, armed with an even more refined 'afrofunk' sound. He would return to his Afrobeat roots in 2006, releasing the critically acclaimed 'Lagos No Shaking' on June 13 of the same year. In his Tribute to Art Barkley performance in 2016, Allen who was thoroughly enjoying himself, cut a sheepish grin as he nodded his head in approval to the crowd's boisterous reception to the sound of his drums. Such was the man's confidence in his talent.

It is in no way an embellishment of Allen's talent on the drums that he is described by UK musician Brian Eno as "perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived".

In death, Allen has been hailed for his role in changing the history of African music by Beninoise singer Angelique Kidjo.

Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, who spent time with Allen in London, called him "one of the greatest drummers to ever walk this earth" in an Instagram post. "What a wildman, with a massive, kind and free heart and the deepest one-of-a-kind groove," Flea said.

Tony Allen spent over five decades creating magic in a genre only a handful of musicians in the world can lay claim to, and he has consequently left an indelible mark in the history of music. In the words of his partner, friend, and brother, the late great Fela Kuti, "without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat."

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