Tony Allen, the pioneering drummer who helped defined Afrobeat during his tenure with Fela Kuti, died Thursday. Rolling Stone has confirmed Allen’s death, yet a cause of death was not immediately available. Sahara Reporters first reported that Allen died in his now-native Paris, France.
As a member of Kuti’s band Africa 70, Allen helped revolutionize the art of drumming, appearing on classic albums like 1973’s Gentleman, 1975’s Expensive Shit and the Afrobeat legend’s most enduring work, 1976’s Zombie. Each release featured Allen’s slippery, ferocious, polyrhythmic grooves. “Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat,” Kuti once said. Damon Albarn and Brian Eno were also famously enamored with Allen’s playing.
Allen was born in Lagos, Nigeria; he didn’t pick up the sticks until his late teens. He studied the work of a variety of jazz drummers, from Art Blakey to Elvin Jones to Philly Joe Jones to Gene Krupa. Speaking with The Wire, Allen credited Max Roach with turning him on to the potential of the hi-hat. Allen later met the drummer Frank Butler, who influenced him to practice drumming on pillows. “It adds flexibility,” he told The Guardian.
Allen also picked up a wide-ranging musical education on the club circuit. “Latin American, African horns, jazz, highlife… you had to be able to play it all, because in the club they asked for it,” Allen said.
He first began performing alongside Kuti when both were sidemen. Allen then served as drummer in Kuti’s band Koola Lobitos. Initially, listeners weren’t sure what to make of the group. “It was like a revolutionary music style coming to the country,” Allen explained. “They were used to the highlife thing… It was kind of strange for the people.”
In addition to his work with Kuti, Allen was known for his collaborations with Albarn: Allen was a member of The Good, The Bad and the Queen alongside Albarn, the Clash’s Paul Simonon, and the Verve’s Simon Tong. That band releasing a pair of albums, a self-titled 2007 LP and 2018’s Merrie Land. Allen, Albarn and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea — under the moniker Rocket Juice & The Moon — also released a collaborative album in 2012.
In recent years, Allen reconnected with his jazz roots, recording a tribute EP for his “hero” Art Blakey and teaming up with Jeff Mills for 2018’s Tomorrow Comes the Harvest. Earlier this year, Allen released Rejoice, a collaboration with late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.
“Some drummers don’t know what it means to play soft, it’s not in their book,” Allen told The Guardian in 2016. “I know I can make my drums bring the house down if I have to. But I know how to make it subtle. You listen to it flowing like a river.”
This is a developing story
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