[Read this in Spanish / Lee esto en español]
Tony Allen is the beat in afrobeat. Together with Fela Anikulapo Kuti he
created the genre in the sixties, formed the group Africa 70 and achieved
legendary status in the seventies. After leaving the band in 1979 he started
his own, Egypt 80, and played with the likes of King Sunny Adé and
Ray Lema. Another ten years later he started working on his own, although
always with other artists collaborating, with the French Comet label signing
him halfway through the nineties. He released an album, Black Voices, and
started the new century with the Allenko Brotherhood project and another
album, Psyco on da Bus. And now there's Homecooking, an album that could
well be the new standard for afrobeat.
We decided to go to the fancy First Class restaurant at Amsterdam Central
Station to hear some words of wisdom from the man who plays like four.
Afro. Beat. Two words became one when one young man called Fela Kuti asked
another young man, Tony Allen, to join him and his band that played a blend
of American jazz and Nigerian highlife music. It was in Lagos, Nigeria,
1964, and a new chapter in musical history was about to be written.
Tony Allen developed his drum style playing in Victor Olayia's Cool Cats in
the fifties. Having started playing the clavecimble, he got behind the drum
kit when their drummer left.
"I was always looking for my sound," Tony says. "Listening to the great
drummers of jazz, Art Blakey, Max Roach, I wanted to achieve something like
they had, I wanted be unique. I thought to myself, if there was to be a
competition with those guys in it, and me, I could never win playing like
this. Because they were superstars. So the only way to win would be by being
myself. By playing my own thing. In those days I was always reading a
magazine for drummers, and Max Roach had his own section in it, giving drum
lessons. So I was studying hard. He was talking about the use of the hi-hat,
and none of the African drummers I knew, you know, playing in higlife
groups, were using the hi-hat. I wasn't, either. So I started studying that,
and it was so hard, you know? But I conquered it, and I developed my style.
And all the other drummers, when they saw me they said 'How do you do that?
What are you doing with the hi-hat?' I started with playing highlife, then
moved on to jazz, and after that I could, and would, play any kind of music.
And then Fela came and I joined his band. That's how afrobeat started."
In the last couple of years more and more dance artists have discovered the
typical afrobeat rhythm, and have started using it in their electronic
"That is exactly what I have always wanted. The music has to stay, it is my
mission to make afrobeat stay forever. So I'm always trying to take the
music in new directions. Which is why I make music with new artists. Like
the Allenko Brotherhood project. I made different rhythms and gave them to
DJs, producers, hiphop artists, you know? So they could build the tracks
around my rhythms. I don't want to repeat what we've done with Fela Kuti &
Africa 70 in the seventies, and what I've done with Egypt 80 in the
eighties. When people talk about afrobeat, they want to hear the old stuff.
Why? Why do more of the same stuff? If you really want the music to stick
around, you have to change it. You have to move with time, because if you
don't, time will pass you. The core is the rhythm, my rhythm. That will not
change. The rhythm is afrobeat. But that doesn't mean you can't make it
sound fresh. So no repeating. As long as I'm alive, I will never bore you. "
One of the reasons why afrobeat is so popular with DJs is that the music
mixes with everything.
"There, you have said it. You got it down! Afrobeat is the only music that
came directly out of Africa that works in a discotheque. Modern dance music
is all 4/4 beats, be it a breakbeat, house, techno, hiphop, it's all 4/4.
Afrobeat isn't. Sometimes it's 6/8, sometimes it's 3/4, but you can always
fuse it with other music, you know? It's tight, it's a groove. You have to
be really disciplined a drummer to be able to play it, because it's hard.
It's like four drummers playing at the same time, the timing is strange at
first. When I play with new people they go 'hmmm, how can we play along with
this, this is weird'. But then they feel the groove, and then we can start
After the beforementioned Allenko Brotherhood project and the Psyco On the
Bus album (both on the French Comet label -DR), Homecooking is Tony Allen's
third big project in two years. Several artists from today's pop music world
play on the album, like Damon Albarn (The Gorillaz, Blur) and UK rapper Ty.
"One of the groups participating in the Allenko Brotherhood project were
Unsung Heroes from London. Ty is one of their rappers. His parents are
Nigerians, but he grew up in the UK. His mother used to go see me and Fela
when we were playing in Lagos at a club called The Shrine, and she was
always playing our music at home. So he knew me and he was really excited to
work with me. We connected, and so I asked him to make the album with me. He
brought the others in. It was great working together. We were all like
family, good vibes all over.
It took me a long time though to finish this album, two years I have been
working on it. I wasn't satisfied anymore with the things I had done so far.
It was the past, and I had to do some homework to come up with something
new. It was like being in the kitchen, preparing a good meal. You know,
nowadays everything is fast, fast, fast. People don't take time anymore to
do things properly, to eat properly. Look around you, this is a fancy
restaurant, you know, you got the waiters all dressed up, the building is
beautiful, very classy. And you pay good money for a meal. But do you think
there is a proper cook behind those doors over there, in the kitchen? Of
course not! There's a guy waiting for the waiter to come in with the note
saying 'I need this, this, this and that'. And then he goes to the fridge,
takes out a couple of plates and sticks them in the microwave. And then you
get it. And it wil taste good, but it won't be nutricious. Because it's not
made with love. It hasn't been prepared with fresh greens, fresh meat, fresh
herbs. And so it is with everything in life, not just food. If you want to
do a proper job, take your time for it. So that's why I called the album
Homecooking, that's why I made the song Homecooking. Because obviously, I'm
not only talking about food there."
Like on Fela's albums and those of modern day bands like the Afrobeat
Orchestra, there's some pretty conscious lyrics on Homecooking. It's almost
as if afrobeat were perfect for politically charged music.
"In a way, but isn't all music? Of course Fela was political, up to a point
where it became dangerous for us in Nigeria. But even nowadays, I can hardly
go to my own country. Not because I used to be in Africa 70, but because it
is just dangerous, period. The music, it has to be played live at night, you
have to experience it at night. But the nightlife in Lagos, I can't do it,
it's too dangerous. You know this year I played in Lagos for the first time
in twenty years. Twenty years! I have been in Europe for nineteen years now,
I'd love to go back to Nigeria, but I won't, because I wouldn't be able to
play there. And I have to play, I can't live without playing. So here I am.
I'm living in Paris now, but I would like to get out of there. Paris is
boring. And now, since the elections, we are in deep shit. Before, we were
in deep shit, too, but now, it has doubled. Now both the government
and the president are conservatives. I like this [Amsterdam], this is
a nice place. I can compare this to London. London is great, I'd like to
move there. There is so much going on, the people live the music there. But
my family doesn't want to leave France. So I'll have to tour a lot [laughs].
I'll be touring with a small band, Ty is coming with us too, it's going to
be good, I'm really looking forward to it. What I'm hoping for now is that I
will get out of the album what I put into it, know what I mean? So I can
travel more, get inspiration. For new things. Always for new things."
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||Texto, Copyright © 2002 Dave Roozendaal.
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