This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia, and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal; the main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick). Main article text is online here: http://www.arthurmag.com/2009/11/02/fela-king-of-the-invisible-art
by Jay Babcock
Tony Allen is the original funky drummer. As a member of Fela’s ’60s highlife group Koola Lobitos, Allen, Tony traveled with Fela to the U.S., where Fela developed Afrobeat. Allen’s complex, seemingly eight-armed and eight-legged drum parts—an encyclopedia of inventive groove spread over dozens of albums—were the only parts of Fela songs not composed by Fela himself. Allen released an incredible series of solo albums in the late-70s and early ’80s, three of which featured Fela and the Afrika 70.
Allen left Fela’s band in the early ’80s; his first post-Fela album, the beyond-essential No Discrimination, featured on its title track this pivotal, sensible lyric of goodwill and good humor: “Black or white, we are all from the same universe/…We have plenty of things to do with each other.”
With the help of French label Comet Records, I spoke transatlantically with Tony from his home in Paris on the eve of the American release of his extraordinary, don’t-call-it-a-comeback late-nite dance-funk album, Black Voices.
Q: Everybody’s interested in Afrobeat again. How come?
Tony Allen: Well…I’m wondering too myself, you know. Wondering. What is going on. These are things, I’ve done them for years, back a long time ago. I never changed my style, y’know, just kept on playing Afrobeat all the time. So maybe they just decide to start listening to it now. I don’t know…
It’s good to hear a live drummer again on the dance floor.
[laughs] Yeah. On the dance floor, yeah. You know, I like play dance music all the time. I love playing dance music. I play other things, but when it comes to me, myself… I don’t have big band really, ‘know? I already tried big band before [in Europe], but it never worked before because this place is not like Africa, where you have cheap labor and those other things, you know. So this time around, I’m playing with…it ranges from…it depends on the project. From quartet to quintet, sextet. But sometimes me myself, I just play with deejays. I choose the records and then we play like that. I just know how to play music. I’ve created something, the way of my playing. I would want people to copy it. That would give me more good feeling, pleasure.
That’s not so easy. Your stuff is so complex—
I play like four drummers, normally. [laughter]
Bootsy Collins was telling me about when the JB’s visited Fela’s club and saw you all perform.
The musicians were always with us every night when they finish their gig. They end up in our own club. They really had a good time there. But not James Brown himself. He never moved his ass to the club.
Ginger [Baker] said [see sidebar interview] Fela’s musicians grew tired of the harassment by the government that was the result of Fela’s provocative music and political stands. Was that why you left the group?
For me, a little bit of that. I was tired of that. I just wanted to play music and not have anybody harass me just for doing nothing, you know. That was a few times. But it had to stop because I could not stand the bullshit. I just take care. I just want to play my music. And when it was getting too tough, I just relaxed. It’s useless, for one month, we are fighting about 20 people at a time. It’s useless. And it’s not 20 people talking about, it’s a whole government. You know how many people make up the government there. Cannot fight them.
Even when Fela was at his most powerful, he still couldn’t…
[That was] the main reason why they didn’t shoot. Be careful, you know. They want to make sure that not anything goes wrong because they afraid of the weapon this guy has: the music, and he has a microphone, and he has a record. He was getting too much for them…
Did you see Fela after you left the band?
Oh yeah, yeah. We stayed friends, although there sometimes there was something like misunderstandings between the journalists and me and he, kind of like, misquotations sometimes come from the journalist. We just kept on going like that, everything. Then when I am in Nigeria, I go to his house, I go to his Shrine, sit down, say, ‘It’s a nice day.’ And when he is here in Europe, he always called me, ‘I’m at the hotel.’ The last
time I saw him, the last concert was in ’92, I was sit in with him.