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Tony Allen (1940–2020), legendary Afrobeat drummer

by John Maxwell

Tony Allen was a Nigerian drummer who helped to create the Afrobeat sound with bandleader Fela Kuti in the 1970s. His pioneering polyrhythms have influenced drummers around the world. Musicians like Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, and Flea have referred to him as the world’s greatest drummer.

Fela Kuti and Afrobeat

Allen was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and began playing the drums as a teenager. Drumming in the Lagos club scene required flexibility to handle the rhythms of jazz as well as popular local music like highlife and traditional Yoruba polyrhythms. He first joined a band with multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Kuti in 1964. Together they explored a blend of North American jazz and African musics. Eventually this came to be called Afrobeat.

By the 1970s Kuti and his band, now known as Africa ’70, became well-known on the world stage. Allen was the heart of the band, playing complex, slippery patterns on the drum kit, weaving rhythm with conga players and other percussionists. After recording more than 30 albums with Africa ’70, Allen left the group in the late 1970s. Though he was sympathetic with Kuti’s political stances, he felt that political clashes with the Nigerian government and Kuti’s growing entourage had overshadowed the music.

Allen didn’t dwell on the past. There was always new music to explore, and he spent his later decades playing with different musicians in bands and projects around the world.

Allen on his musical legacy

“I don’t talk about myself. I don’t need to say what I’ve done… My music, when it’s done, it’s done. For me to explore – that’s what I should be doing now.”—from a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone

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What people said about him

Full obituary: Rolling Stone

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