Black history month at finesse foreva
As a black owned business, at Finesse Foreva we always want to highlight black artists and their contributions to music, which can sometimes sadly go overlooked. So for the second year running, we’re bringing back the Finesse Foreva Black History Month profiles, where we will be giving breakdowns of some of the most important Black artists in the diaspora.
Nigerian Independence Day was last week, commemorating the nations’ freedom from British colonial rule. And while there was a bigger conversation about who exactly was excited about remembering this moment, I thought that in that light, my pick for Black History Month should be one of Nigeria’s finest. And that’s because earlier this year, we lost an icon, an artist, and a true groundbreaker in music - Africa 70’s Tony Allen.
The drummer and bandleader for Fela Kuti’s band, and the co-creator of Afrobeat, the loss of Tony Allen was unfortunate, untimely, and resonated with musicians around the world. So for this article, I’ll be going deep into the man's past, his catalogue and his accomplishments, as a final celebration.
what do you mean you don't listen to fela?
The drummer in the band is not often the man with the most attention. Like the bassist, the drummer contributes to the groove and keeps things steady while the guitarist, pianist, and especially in the case of Fela, the vocalist take centerstage.
However, if you are at all familiar with the iconic Fela Kuti’s music; or his successors who have been inspired by his style, from Burna Boy to his son Femi - chances are you will be more than aware of Tony Allen’s greatness. He may not have had a word to say but his impact on the music is undeniable.
Tony Allen’s presence is owed in part due to the fact of the length of the original Afrobeat recordings. Ranging anywhere from a cool 5 to a stupid 25 minutes, it is surprising just how little of Fela’s voice you got. He’d write most of the music; the guitars, the pianos and the horns, and emerge like a madman halfway through to tell you what was on his mind. He was strict and demanding of his live band, making sure they rehearsed long and often and perfected the image he had in his mind for the music. And as a result, the vibe and instrumentality of afrobeat was just as powerful as his anti-establishment message.
The one part he didn’t write, and gave the most outside credit for, was the rhythm section. Tony Allen, taking inspiration from the jazz of Art Blakely, the funk of James Brown, highlife from Ghana, and rhythms from Benin and Togo, had a style that was all his own making.
The unique and inimitable grooves are refreshing and unique to this day, adding a hypnotic rhythm that leaves an unforgettable impression. That impression was made on me from young; my dad was a bassist and a saxophone player and regularly played afrobeat, especially when uncles and family were over. That music sounds familiar and homely to me, and naturally I took it with me as I grew older.
Because of this, I decided that since he lived to see the man’s career unfold firsthand, I should go to my dad first for this article. He said that ‘Tony Allen was a fantastic drummer - he came up with double beat style. If he wasn’t in Fela’s band, the music he made would be completely different. He was really the forefather of afrobeat.’
This was something that Fela himself never hesitated to admit; going on to saythat ‘without Tony Allen, there would be no afrobeat’.
the life of tony allen
Tony Allen was born in colonial Lagos in 1940, to a Yoruba household. He had a diverse parenthood that exposed him to a wide range of music. Picking up the drums in his teens (and starting off playing the claves in his first band), he decided early on that he couldn’t work a regular job, but that he had to chase his own passions in music. He was aware of the uncertainty in starting a music career but after weeks of running round nightclubs, taking in as much live music as he could, he saw no other option. He worked hard to develop in the music he loved - the jazz and the highlife - and put his own spin on it.
In 1964 an audition for Fela’s band made for a chance meeting that would change the landscape of music forever. Fela was instantly taken with his style, asking him: ‘How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this - jazz and highlife?’
The mid-to-late 60s found the band finding its feet, singing and playing a more toned down and dance focused music than they became known for. It was not until things became more turbulent in Nigeria - civil unrest, Igbo revolutions and the eventual Biafran Civil War for Independence that they came into their own.
The band escaped the turmoil and a declining career for a tour in America, but Fela’s political upbringing and awareness was unlocked by meeting true revolutionaries. Listening to the speeches of Malcolm X and learning about the Black Panthers on the West Coast, Fela found this progressive message inspiring and sought to incorporate an pan-arican perspective into his music. Knowing that he could no longer make non-consequential music, the band returned to Nigeria to really make their mark, renamed themselves Fela Kuti and the Africa 70, and released the iconic song Lady.
Tony himself was also expanded musically by this trip. A chance meeting with jazz drummer frank butler taught him to pratice drumming every morning on pillows - something that he claimed 'adds flexibility'.
So much classic and timeless music was released by this band upon their return in the 70s; Zombie, Everything Scatter, Gentleman, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, Expensive Shit, just to name a few. THEY WORKED WITH EVERYONE FROM JAZZ LEGEND ROY AYERS TO ICONIC ROCK BAND CREAM'S GINGER BAKER, MAKING TIMELESS MUSIC.
The message of the music brought the band under the eye of the government almost immediately. Fela was arrested over 200 times; and most painfully, they went on to raid his home, and eventually his mother's life was taken for Fela’s intense criticisms.
Not all good things last. The political spectacle, the harassment from the government, and Fela’s own personal eccentricities (including starting his own commune, and his refusing to pay Tony royalties) forced Tony to depart and make music on his own terms. Reflecting on his career with fela, he said that 'fela was right - but i hdestest singing militantly.' He had made his own solo albums with Africa 70, a lot of it as powerful and as impactful as the Fela-fronted songs, but after starting this next phase of career in 1980, he sought to make his own mark as a solo artist.
The album I’m most familiar with in this post-Fela phase is 2002’s Homecooking. This album condenses down the expansive, jazz energy of the earlier music into more soulful and accessible songs, with the appearances from the late UK rapper Ty, as well as Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn. THE WHOLE ALBUM IS JUST PURE VIBES.
THE MID-80S ROLLED ROUND he found his home in Paris and started living his life there. He married and settled down, fought drug addictions, explored his creativity, and up until his last years he was still releasing music and performing. He set up his home in the city and eventually, at the age of 79, he passed away in April this year.
the legacy of tony allen
As a tribute, THE GORILLAZ released what would be their final collaboration - the Gorillaz, Tony Allen, and UK MC Skepta. And as a fitting final tribute, Skepta is on top form, flowing over Tony’s complex rhythms as naturally as any other beat. referencing 'expensive shit', and paying homage to africa 70, the song is anthemic and probably the best final song you could ask for.
tHE SONG ALSO FEATURES A RARE VOCAL PERFORMANCE FROM THE MAN, SPEAKING IN (MUM TRANSLATED - I CAN BARELY TELL MY E SHE FROM MY O SHE) YORUBA - 'GET UP AND GO / I'VE GOT A CROWD / LET'S GO'.
Musicians around the world, before and after his death, spoke highly of Tony and his contributions to music. Everyone from Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Paul McCartney of The Beatles had the highest regard for him AS MUSICIAN, AND LEGENDS SUCH AS D'ANGELO AND ERYKAH BADU DRAWING INFLUENCE.
Together with his frequent collaborators, Tony consistently made powerful and impactful music. Fela’s music inspired anti-authoritarian criticism and sentiments toward the government that in the midst of a police brutality issue in nigeria continue to be relevant and important today.
tony might not have been the rebel fela was. but the early stuff, and his music later on, set vibes that you can only get from that authentic place of genius.