Tony Allen
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Tony Allen

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"Excerpts from "Secret Agent" Sleeve Notes"

Somehow, Afrobeat sounds just as relevant in 2009. Its catholic blend of African-American funk and jazz with traditional West African rhythms, and its politically insurrectionary lyrics, often sung in Broken English to communicate across indigenous linguistic barriers, was the sound of pan-tribal shanty towns across West Africa in the 1970s. Today it also speaks of and to growing, polyglot, inner city diasporas in Europe and North America. It could be that Afrobeat is about to begin another spell in the global spotlight.

If so, Tony Allen is ready for it. His World Circuit debut, the raw and uncut Secret Agent, has all the ingredients that combine to make Afrobeat so special - fat, full-throated, hard riffing horns; nagging tenor guitars; jazz- and funk-informed saxophone and trumpet work outs; effervescent chicken-shack keyboards; lyrics rich in folk metaphors and proverbs, some of which confront state corruption and oppression (Kuti’s most frequent targets, still alive and toxic in Nigeria today); deep-soul call and response vocals; and, of course, energising everything around it, Allen’s majestic drumming.

Allen drives the music on, straight as an arrow, but without recourse to simple time-keeping, working almost elliptically, in a loose-limbed ragged shuffle, nudging and bumping round the edges, fusing the cross-rhythms into one irresistible forward motion.

Allen‘s focus on rhythm extends to his song writing. “Fela had a different way of writing,” he says. “Fela wrote like a singer. I write like a drummer.” Rhythm is the heart of Secret Agent, for which, with keyboard player/arranger Fixi, Allen wrote all the music. The instrumental tracks were recorded by his touring band, a cooking all-nations octet. Guitarist Claude Dibongue and tenor saxophonist Jean Jacques Elangue are from Cameroon; bassist Rody Cereyon is from Martinique; trumpeter Nicolas Giraud, trombonist Simon Andrieux and alto and baritone saxophonist Yann Jankielewicz are from France, as is Fixi. The sound is foursquare in the roots Afrobeat tradition, with a few twists (deliciously including Fixi’s accordion on some tracks).

Vocals were recorded by Nigerian singers/lyricists Orobiyi Adunni, King Odudu, Bola Dumoye, Kefee Obareki and Abiodun Oke. “All disciples of Afrobeat,” says Allen, who himself wrote and sang the lyrics for two tracks.

The songs on Secret Agent are variously sung in Yoruba, Broken English, English and Orobo. Allen’s “Secret Agent” is in English and his “Elewon Po” (“too many prisoners”) is in Broken English, English and Yoruba. The four lyrics written by Adunni - “Ijo” (“dance”), “Nina Lowo” (“money is to be spent”), “Ayenlo” (“time is going, the world is moving”), “Atuwaba” (“no matter if things are bad, it will get better“) - also use this trio of languages. Obareki’s “Busybody” is in English and Orobo. Odudu’s “Celebrate” and “Pariwo” (“shout, protest, make some noise”) are in English and Broken English. Oke’s “Alutere” (“the message the drums transmit”) is in Yoruba. “Switch”, sung in English and Broken English, is Dumoye’s nickname.

During his lifetime, Fela Kuti was Afrobeat’s most coruscating political lyricist, and his 1970s’ masterpieces with Allen and Afrika 70 either provoked or described a series of increasingly brutal attacks by the Nigerian army and police. Kuti and his immediate family bore the brunt of this long and shameful catalogue of assaults, trumped up charges and jailings, but Allen was jailed too on one occasion. “With Fela it was like being at university,” he says, “and you don’t run away from education. We learnt so much by not being cowards.” On Secret Agent, “Elewon Po” and “Pariwo” continue Afrobeat’s proud tradition of speaking out.

“Fela was right about everything,” says Allen. “Everything he sang about is still happening. Nigeria’s not getting any better. It’s all misadministration and corruption, survival of the fittest. Lagos is a complete mother****** of a place. These messages we send to the government, they never listen to them. The people wait for an effect, but there’s no effect. These guys do nothing. Afrobeat is rebellious music. We have to keep shouting.”

This is both the beauty and the blues of Afrobeat in 2009. The beauty is the music’s uplifting blend of rhythm and rebellion. The blues is that, a decade and more after Kuti's death, the problems facing Nigeria’s working and middle classes are perhaps even worse than they were in Kuti's day.

Along with his own albums, Allen is a founder member of The Good, The Bad & The Queen, alongside Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon and Simon Tong. His association with Albarn goes back some half dozen years; it came about after Allen heard the lyric "Tony Allen got me dancing" on Blur's 2000 song “Music is My Radar” and invited Albarn to Lagos to guest on Home Cooking. Allen is also involved with the African Express project whose aims are to introduce African and European musicians to each other and to enco - World Circuit


Still working on that hot first release.



Born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1940, of mixed Nigerian and Ghanaian parentage, Tony Allen taught himself to play by listening to records made by the American jazz drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. He began working as a professional musician in 1960, gigging around Lagos and variously playing highlife and jazz. Today living in Paris, Allen has long been acknowledged as Africa’s finest kit drummer and one of it's most influential musicians, the man who with Fela Anikulapo Kuti created Afrobeat - the hard driving, James Brown funk-infused, and politically engaged style which became such a dominant force in African music and whose influence continues to spread today.