The Lagos-born drummer introduced a style of playing to the African highlife scene which he modeled after American jazz pioneers like Art Blakey, creating an explosive concoction that fused the best of both worlds. In his 2007 Red Bull Music Academy lecture in Toronto, Tony details his initial encounters with Fela Kuti, whose groundbreaking band he would be an integral part of between 1968 and 1979.
When the Blue Note records started coming into the country, I started listening to Art Blakey and I was like: “Wow! This one is different. It’s not the same style like Gene Krupa. They were playing jazz, but it’s not the same style. I prefer this one.” I started to go towards this sound of Art Blakey, Jo Jones. Because Art Blakey doesn’t sound like one drummer, he sounds like more than one. So on the record I was imagining, “Is this one guy playing those drums?” I said: “Maybe someone is playing the cymbals or the hi-hats for him?” If he was able to do that, then that means I have to go for that. He was my idol but I didn’t know how I was going to be myself.
One thing I observed when I was playing was that most of the drummers right in front of me – the so-called good drummers – have at least four things there: you have two pedals, one for the hi-hat, one for the bass drum. I watched these drummers and they never play the hi-hat. It’s closed and they play on top of it. I wasn’t convinced. There must be another way of playing these fucking hi-hats, man. I was not convinced at all. Something was wrong here, it wasn’t complete. The hi-hats weren’t played. So I’m like: “How am I going to create with it?” So one day, you know the Downbeat magazine? It’s a monthly magazine, I used to buy it every month. I bought it that month and in the middle of the page I saw just two pages teaching hi-hats. Ah! I saw that that was it! And I saw that what this guy wrote there I hadn’t seen anybody doing it. So I say: “OK, that’s the challenge for me now.” I went back to my drums everyday, every afternoon. I was trying to fuse the playing of these hi-hats into how I was playing before, which wasn’t being done. That took some time. When I discovered that and I was able to do that and say: “Yes, I’m manoeuvring fine now, no disturbance,” then I became the drummer in town who all the other drummers came to watch.
They would say: “Tony! What the fuck are you doing? What are you doing, man?” “I’m playing.” It’s the same music that they were playing before. But all of a sudden, they start to hear something that wasn’t there before. And so they thought I was crazy. It’s OK for me, I got it. Even before I met Fela.
I met Fela when he came back from his studies. He was working as a broadcaster for the Nigerian Radio Corporation, and his program was to play old jazz records on Friday night. Being a musician, he really wanted to play jazz when he arrived in the country. Instead of him presenting the records, he decided to form a band that would play the records, interpret the records and make it live. They would go in and pre-record everything for the quarter. 13 programs, 30 minutes each, in like three days.
So Fela came, and I was playing in a steady band, you know? Fela was trying to do his jazz thing and he tried three different drummers and the funny thing was he tried these guys in front of me. I had worked with them before and they were good drummers. When Fela played with them he was like: “No, shit! There’s no drummer in this country, man. You guys can’t play drums.” So the bass player was like: “No, no, no. You haven’t checked this one person yet.” And he said: “Who else? I’ve checked all the so-called best ones.” This bass player said: “His name is Tony Allen, and we play together in the same band.” And he checked me out.
"The style you play... one wouldn't even need a percussionist."
He invited me to his house and then we went to the radio station where the instruments were set. He says: “Hey Tony, can you play 12-bar blues?” I say: “Yes, I can play 12-bar blues.” He says: “Can you take solos? And share solos four four?” And I say: “Yes.” So he takes his trumpet and I’m on the drums and he counts and we were away, 12-bar blues. After the third cycle he was like: “Stop, stop, stop!”
So I stopped, maybe there’s a problem. He said: “No.” And then he looked at me and then looked at the guy in the control room and he said: “Hey! Are you listening to what I’m listening to?” The guy says: “Yes, yes.” So he said: “Did you observe the first cycle that this guy rolled in? And then the second cycle and roll in again, and then third cycle roll in again? Have you ever seen that with the others?” And he says: “No.”
So: “Ahhh,” says Fela, “OK, let’s go. We’re going to share solos now.” He took his first four and I took my first four, and then he went for his second four, and I took my second four, and he said: “Stop! Where did you learn your drumming? Did you study in the States? Did you study in England?” And I said: “No, I did everything here.” And he says: “It’s incredible. The style you play one wouldn’t even need a percussionist.” So the first year like this I had my band playing steadily, and that’s when I had my leave.
For Fela it was strictly jazz. I was doing these two things at the same time, until one year later, he decided he wanted to join the cycle of the others too. Living on the local music scene, the highlife, they lived like kings. So Fela says he wants to front the highlife band, but not play it the same way. I tell him: “Yes, it’s possible, you can do anything you want to do.”
What I really wanted to achieve as a drummer... [was] be extraordinary which ever way. And I think it’s only Fela that would let me reach that level.
At that time, I was working. One night they drove down to the club and came in with this manager assistant – they work together on the radio – and he says to me: “Tony! Fela says you should resign from your job here.” I say: “What?” “You should resign ‘cause they are forming a new band.” “Forming a new band? I don’t even know where we are going yet?” So I was going to leave my steady job to uncertainty again. But I was able to be convinced because I thought, “Maybe I have to sacrifice something for something else?” That means that I might have to resign. So I said: “Wait, just give me ‘til the end of the month, end my salary here and I tender them my resignation.”
They thought I was joking, but I knew that with him was what I really wanted to achieve as a drummer: be extraordinary which ever way. And I think it’s only him that would let me reach that level. I had to gamble. So I took my salary and resigned. The manager of that club begged me to stay: “Do you want more money? I’ll give you more money.” “No, not a question of money now, it’s a question of future. I’m tired of the band already because it’s stagnant. I don’t see how I can improve in this band.” I told him I just want to be a musician.
So I begged him, I said: “Please, sir, forgive me that I resigned.” He said: “But you do know what you’re doing?”, and I say: “I know, but I just have to go and try it.” And with Fela, I knew I was meeting a genius. Someone that I haven’t seen anything like it before. So I bend my neck.