'His drums were singing, you know?' Tony Allen remembered by his collaborators

Angélique Kidjo, Jeff Mills, Sébastien Tellier and more remember the late drummer: his humility, his brilliance, and his awesome sportswear

Femi Koleoso

Femi Koleoso.
Femi Koleoso. Photograph: Diedre O’Callaghan

My dad used to play Fela Kuti records to me – some of my earliest musical memories are those records playing in the car. Later on I wondered who played the drums: oh, it’s this guy Tony Allen. He became my superstar.

It was the sound of Nigeria in a rhythm. It’s that undeniable groove that makes you want to dance, and that’s what I think and feel when I’m around Nigerians. It’s an energy, it’s a force; it’s not aggressive but it’s not tame. When a Nigerian’s in the room, you know a Nigerian’s in the room, and that’s how I feel about Tony’s playing: once he lays that beat on a Fela track it’s here to stay for the next half an hour.

Tony said he’d heard good things about me, and asked when was I gonna come and see him. I said: “Any time!” Like an ignorant Londoner I just assumed he lived in London, only to find out he lives in Paris. One of my friends told me you can get the Megabus there – say no more. I got it at 11pm, arriving in Paris at 6am. I would walk around Paris aimlessly for hours, and then I’d have a drum lesson with him in the afternoon. But it was more than a lesson: we would sit down, hang out, eat. He was fun, he had a youthful buzz about him. He was grateful for life. It was like hanging out with an old uncle. He was awfully grumpy in the mornings, but by the evening he was great.

He laughed when I was playing and said: “Why is everything so aggressive?” I was like: “What do you mean? It’s the drums, man, that’s what they’re for!” So for the first few lessons we worked on playing Fela Kuti beats really quietly together, really trying to get inside all the things about music that make a drum beat powerful, apart from sheer force.

Tony Allen in 2015.
Tony Allen in 2015. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Another thing I got from him is how many ways there are to make people dance. Are you going to lay the most simple beat to keep a platform for everyone else, or something more complicated? I got all that from him. Whether I’m playing with Jorja Smith or Ezra Collective, you’ll always hear something I can directly point towards and say: I learned that from Tony Allen. He’s the biggest musical influence on my playing, without a doubt.

Questlove, Chris Dave, Moses Boyd – these are all people I know are directly influenced by Tony too, but none of us can make a beat sit down and groove like he did. It’s so weird, because it’s not even that hard. You’ll look at the notes, what he’s doing, and you’re like: right, I can play everything in the right place. But when he does it, it just sounds better. Like when a really great narrator reads a sentence, it just has an authority to it that you couldn’t give, even if you can read the same sentence. He had a special gift.

Angélique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo.
Angelique Kidjo. Photograph: Laurent Seroussi

I’ve known Tony since the late 80s. I had never met someone so positive, it was crazy. With Tony, it’s always about what can make the music beautiful, what can bring music to people’s hearts, what can make them dance. He never bitched about anything, never blamed anyone for anything.

He stayed as long as he could with the oppression in Nigeria with Fela. For his own sake, he had to leave to have a career. But was really grateful of the experience of being at the forefront, at the roots of Afrobeat. With Fela’s band, the horns, the singing, everybody can go wherever they want, because they know when they come back, they know there’s something holding them: Tony. He completely changed the way of playing drums: instead of hitting them hard, he put the percussionist’s role into the drums. The cowbell is always the driver of Afrobeat, and that’s why he plays so laid back. I’m looking at him, like: “You don’t even sweat. I’m singing and sweating – come on Tony, man, don’t rub it in, sweat a little bit!” But he said: “No, I never sweat.”

Remain in Light by Talking Heads was influenced by Fela’s album Afrodisiac, so when I covered it, the whole thing was about bringing rock’n’roll back to Africa. I wanted to pay tribute to the courage of Talking Heads by not copying Afrodisiac but understanding the trance induced by the drums from west Africa. So I said to Tony: “Let’s bring it back home.” We worked together again on Celia, my album of Celia Cruz songs, and afterwards Tony said: “Now we have to do our own project together.” I said: “I would love that, but we should add Manu Dibango and do a killer album.” And here we are, we didn’t have a chance to start working [Dibango died in March]. This news is beginning to feel painful and heavy to carry – I’m a little bit sore right now.

In a music business that is really dominated by men, it’s very hard to find a real gentleman. Manu Dibango is one, Tony Allen is one, and Hugh Masekela. The woman and person that I am, they respect it, before even respecting the artist that I am, and that is something that I derive my strength from. It’s very hard when you’re a woman in this business, and on top of that you’re an African woman, you’re black? God help you. And so to have such strong men who look at you and say: “What are you afraid of? Go for it, we’ll be here”? I’m flying high.

Tony didn’t speak much. He listened, and he had that smile: I’m sitting at my drums, and I’m in heaven. He would then look at me, and say: “Are you ready?” And he hit and I followed. You look at his hands, and his whole body – he’s like a painter, a storyteller, he’s just building everything around him. And you think, OK, this house is sturdy, I’m going to sit in it and do whatever I have to do.

When I was doing the album Eve, I went back to Benin and cut some tracks with drummers there, and as soon as you say Tony Allen, they go: “Oh my God, it’s because of him that I’m doing drums.” In the new generation of Afrobeats that’s coming from Africa, Tony is at the centre of it – he allows the youth today to cut and paste, do whatever they want to do with that rhythm. Afrobeats is also proof of the back and forth of music that left Africa to go to Europe and come back. It’s a constant exchange, it’s non-stop – trying to stop it is like trying to fight immigration, it’s impossible. And Tony is at the epicentre of it. He’s the foundation of the house.

Sébastien Tellier

Sébastien Tellier.
Sébastien Tellier. Photograph: Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images

Aged 25, I was playing a role in a movie by Quentin Dupieux, aka Mr Oizo. At night, the sound engineer would play a lot of Fela Kuti: super involving, a real discovery for me, and I was totally fascinated by the drums. Six months later, I was in Paris talking with friends and I said: “Oh la la, my favourite drummer is the drummer of Fela.” Someone said: “You know his name is Tony Allen? And he lives in Paris, in a very strange place – La Défense.” Tony Allen is living in the business centre of Paris?! OK – I will call him for my new song.

This was La Ritournelle, a very important song for me. I already had the chords, the melody, and I was looking for a drummer. Tony asked for the music before he came in the studio, so he listened a lot to the piano. He was working a lot, but not playing – he was thinking about the music. Tony was a very intellectual guy. And at one point, boom, he’s ready. I need maybe 15 or 20 takes to be happy, but Tony was a one-take guy. Maybe two, to be nice.

I kept the entire take, I didn’t do an edit of it. You can put the instruments in the computer and edit everything, but with Tony it was impossible to do that – the drums are too complicated. It’s like a big river. It’s a very human style of drumming, a lot of feelings, with a real story inside, and so if you edit it, you destroy the story.

Before Tony, La Ritournelle was good, I liked the chords. But when Tony played, it was really magic. He chose to start the ride cymbal when the singing starts – you have maybe six minutes with the hi-hat, and when I sing, he moves to the ride. It gave a magical touch to the song, it was a brilliant idea. This guy was really a genius of drums. It’s impossible to explain where the snare and kick is – it’s like a fantastic salad, full of different little parts.

He also brought a very good ambience to the studio – of international cool. Tony always wore a good outfit, super good sportswear. He was like a fantastic grandpa, kind of fragile but intense, and drinking a lot, smoking a lot. Like – a lot. The guy was always with a cloud of smoke around him. He was very discreet; he never told me: “You know I played with Fela Kuti, you know I invented Afrobeat?” Mega humble, super nice, a high level of coolness. The outfits, the way he talks, the eyes: someone very cool and very intelligent. Small, polite, but with a huge aura.

It was almost impossible to play this music on stage because I couldn’t find any drummer who could play the Tony parts. He was an old man, and it wasn’t really possible to do a tour like mine. So I always ask the new drummer: “Yeah, could you play La Ritournelle exactly like Tony?” And it was just impossible. It’s a very mysterious way to play drums. I guess it’s because he learned to play drums by himself, he didn’t take lessons, so he created another way to play.

Jeff Mills

Jeff Mills.
Jeff Mills. Photograph: Jacob Khrist

Drummers like him are why guys decided to make drum machines, because the beats were so complex. Tony’s music had a certain type of flow and rhythm that is like a piece of gold for a DJ: it would take a person to a higher level, and it didn’t matter who you were or what you liked or where you were from, it had a very universal effect.

My manager told me that Tony Allen had rented out a studio in Paris and was inviting artists to come in and just jam. It was a very simple, brief meeting – he didn’t say much, we talked for a little bit, and then we set up and we started to play. And then we got into long conversations about everything – life and music.

We toured together as a duo and there were no rehearsals – we just took to the stage and played what we felt. The set list was “spontaneity”, and to me, that’s the highest form of communicating through music. We talked about politics or something up until the second that we took the stage, and then when we played together, we were emphasising those thoughts because they were still in our heads.

He was a very kind person. He always liked to tell you things he’s learned in the past, so that you don’t make the same mistake. One of the last conversations we had, I asked him if life, or this world, was as crazy then as it was now, and he said: “Yeah, it was always crazy.” That gave me a little bit of reassurance that we’re not experiencing anything unusual.

I asked him: “This way you’re playing the snare, where did that come from?” And he said that when he was growing up in Lagos, in one given day you’re going to speak four or five different languages. That carried over into the nightlife – the snare was speaking these multiple languages, and he taught me that you are never quite sure who the music is speaking to, so speak to everyone. He told me someone once asked him: “Where’s the one [the lead beat]?” Because it’s difficult to see where the rhythm starts. He explained that the one is everywhere, and it really depends on the listeners, where they come in and where they leave. So he was always showing me things, and teaching. We would have eye contact during our performances, and he would let me know if something was interesting or not.

After the first few performances, I went home, went to a music store and bought as much percussion as I could – as an electronic musician I was programming machines to the point where I never really used my hands. What I was really looking for was something I had in my own character, and I never would have realised that had I not listened to him. When it comes to showing a higher level of rhythm, and approaching that in a very organic way, I don’t think there’s anyone that I will meet that will show me as much as he did.

Susheela Raman

Susheela Raman.
Susheela Raman. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

I asked him to come and play on my 2003 album Love Trap. With my previous album, Salt Rain, I had explored an axis of Europe, India and Africa, and this was an extension of that – we managed to find a musical space that was big enough to house all of those different elements, and I think Tony was proud of achieving that. He knew a lot about music, more than just groove. Sometimes you would hear him playing at soundcheck and you’d feel this immense depth and weight, almost like it’s been going on forever. He once said to me, my drumming is never-ending, and that’s the feeling you got from him.

He was very easy to play with – he didn’t have an ego. He wore his legend quite lightly, and was kind and charming. We share a birthday, and we would phone each other up each year for the last 15 years. When he came to London he would come and visit us, and play you his new music, and it was like … you know how teenagers are when they’ve got a new demo? He had that childlike demeanour. He was always so enthusiastic about life and music, he had a real zest for living.

Moses Boyd

Moses Boyd.
Moses Boyd. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Not many drummers have redefined drum language. It’s kind of like what J Dilla did for drummers – even though he wasn’t a drummer, what he did with the MPC [sampler] changed the way drummers played. Tony is one of those innovators, like Elvin Jones, like Tony Williams – you can’t come up after Tony and not be influenced by what his contribution to the drums is. He is almost in a world of his own.

I first met him in 2016 and ever since I’d always run into him hanging or playing with someone. He was a lot of fun, and he had a lot of time for musicians. He was this funky, youthful 79-year-old. He became very uncle-like, and loved a good time, always had some whisky or weed.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet and talk with a lot of the masters, like Roy Hargrove, Roy Haynes, James Moody, Jimmy Heath – they all had the same youthful inquisitiveness. Tony too, it felt like he was fresh and ready to take on whatever the show was. Not everyone’s blessed like that, some people get stuck in their thing, and that’s cool – they like to do what they do. But Tony always seemed wide open.

Gilles Peterson

Gilles Peterson.
Gilles Peterson. Photograph: Jesse FK Howard

In the mid-80s, I used to DJ at Electric Ballroom in Camden on a Friday night. Upstairs was what they called the jazz room, where all the dancers would dance off and battle. Two Fela Kuti tracks that Tony Allen played on, Roforofo Fight and Shakara, were two of the most essential tracks that I had. Not only were they incredible, but they were also long, and allowed for a serious battle to ensue.

From Fatboy Slim playing Roforofo Fight at Glastonbury to Q-Tip playing it at Output to Louie Vega playing it in Tokyo, any DJ playing any kind of music, whether it’s hip-hop, house or disco, will have been saved at least once by a Tony Allen track. Whenever I saw him, I felt like I should pay him a percentage of my fee. The songs were generally quite long, so they always gave you enough time to get your head together – if you’re slightly nervous and need to settle into the zone, start with a Fela track. Or if you need a toilet break.

His music worked at 90bpm as well as it worked at 140bpm, that was the other magic about it. Even the slower stuff – Water No Get Enemy, Fear Not for Man – is brutally powerful in the same way roots reggae is, or heavy dubstep by Mala. It was almost like he created a beat that was ahead of the drum machine, it was so constant. And if you’re used to dancing on the fourth beat, you can fall into a four within his beat, but if you want to dance to the offbeat, you can find that too. There’s several different rhythms to latch on to, depending on what you like. And that’s really powerful – he’s managed to incorporate the swing and the hypnotic, two very different areas. You really have to mess up, or the crowd has to really suck, if they don’t dance to Tony Allen records.

Oumou Sangaré

Oumou Sangaré.
Oumou Sangaré. Photograph: Benoit Peverelli

Tony Allen marked all of my childhood – I used to dance a lot to his Afrobeat music. It was one of my dreams to collaborate with him and I finally realised it: he gifted me with his magic touch on my last album, Mogoya, playing drums on the tracks Yere Faga and Fadjamou. He is one of the most legendary musicians of all time because he knew how to play and adapt himself to all genres of music. He was a kind, generous and smart man. You marked your era, my brother. You will remain forever in our memories – rest in peace.

Moritz von Oswald

Moritz von Oswald.
Moritz von Oswald. Photograph: Marion Benoit

I did a remix for him, and then got in touch with him to give me a good backbeat for the Moritz von Oswald Trio I had formed. I’m a drummer myself, and Tony was like somebody from another world. How he kept the beat, how steady it was, it was so upfront and so precise – he was like a drum machine with soul. He was playing not only beats, but melodies – his drums were singing, you know?

In my studio, we set up my drum kit and he was so happy to sit behind it. It’s like I could feel his destination. It was so genius how he did his contributions to this steady electronic beat, how he loosened it up. He was never trying to put himself in the foreground, only support. And it was so complex. He was giving so much that it was almost enough on its own. I thought of making him the first person, changing the whole role of having a drummer. Usually a drummer is used as a backbeat, and I love that, but sometimes I was thinking to exchange these old conservative roles, and have him being the one that’s the main musician, and me add synth music to his playing. We never tried, but it would have been great to do it.

His playing was impossible to copy because no one in the world would be able to play it. And it was so light, as if it was floating – maybe the same as his personality! We had some beautiful times together. He was kind of a father figure, always embracing people, very humble. Kind of the same as he was behind the kit. We talked about our problems; we had some beautiful conversations about family and friendship. He was 75 when we played with him and we went to Japan, Australia, but he never argued or moaned. He was fighting through for playing, and you could see when you looked into his eyes that he really loved to play. He was a close friend – I felt like a son to him. And he was a genius, no?


Interviews by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tony Allen: Afrobeat’s master on Hugh Masekela, Damon Albarn and friction with Fela Kuti
As a lost album by Allen and Masekela is released, African’s finest drummer remembers the late trumpeter’s brilliant funk – and the chaotic militancy of his most famous partner

Robin Denselow

19, Mar, 2020 @12:41 PM

Article image
Tony Allen: the Afrobeat pioneer's 10 finest recordings
From simmering dancefloor fillers to defiant resistance anthems, we pick the best of the legendary drummer’s tracks

Ammar Kalia, Global music critic

01, May, 2020 @1:43 PM

Article image
Tony Allen: Fela Kuti, Damon Albarn and me
Tony Allen: He was the drummer for Fela Kuti throughout the master’s groundbreaking years and has helped shape Afrobeat ever since. He chooses five top moments from his 55-year career

Tony Allen

09, Oct, 2014 @4:24 PM

Article image
Lagos calling: Tony Allen opens up Nigeria's music scene
Over the next week, we’re collaborating with Boiler Room on a new series, Gateways, that explores the spreading strands of Nigerian music. And the world-renowned Afrobeat drummer is our chief guide

Michael Hann

03, Aug, 2016 @3:47 PM

Article image
Tony Allen: There Is No End review | Ammar Kalia's global album of the month
More cohesive than many a posthumous release, Allen’s legacy is well-served here, especially on the more experimental tracks

Ammar Kalia

02, Apr, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Tony Allen: the Afrobeat maverick who blazed a trail across the globe
The Nigerian musician was a restless creator who embraced the physicality of drumming and innovated until the end

Kate Hutchinson

01, May, 2020 @2:41 PM

Article image
Tony Allen: A Retrospective review – sprawling tribute gets the crowd on its feet
At almost three hours, Damon Albarn, Femi Koleoso, Ben Okri and co still struggled to encapsulate the full gamut of Allen’s creativity

Ammar Kalia

14, Nov, 2021 @12:28 PM

Article image
Watch Tony Allen pass on his drumming tips to new jazz star Moses Boyd
In the latest part of our Gateways – Nigeria and Tony Allen series, the great man gives a lesson to one of Britain’s rising talents

Guardian music

05, Aug, 2016 @12:30 PM

Article image
Sarathy Korwar, Flying Lotus and FKA twigs among 2020 AIM awards winners
Independent Music awards for artists outside major label system also honour Moses Boyd, Arlo Parks, Yaeji and AJ Tracey

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

12, Aug, 2020 @8:45 PM

Article image
Tony Allen obituary
Masterful drummer and co-creator of Afrobeat, the fusion of funk, jazz and African styles that he pioneered with Fela Kuti

Robin Denselow

03, May, 2020 @2:50 PM