Tony Allen started making music with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in the late 1960s and continued to be the rhythm powerhouse of Afrika 70 during the self proclaimed “Black President’s” most prolific period. Allen fused jazz drumming styles from Americans such as Art Blakey with African Highlife to create the backbone for Afrobeat. But Afrobeat continues to break the form rather than get stuck in a loop.
“The approach is Afrobeat” says Allen, “it can be extended not just to the past but also applied to my whole life. It’s the ups and downs of music. It’s about evolution – we just keep moving on.”
It comes as no surprise that his new solo album Film of Life isn’t a perfectly preserved retrospective but a future-gazing album of new material. It has the similar hypnotising polyrhythms but doesn’t sound stuck in an era or musical style.
This doesn’t mean that his work is without teeth, his laconic vocal delivery often conveys a strong message. The opening track Moving On lays down the musical manifesto of what at one point he calls “Afrobeat Espresso” and at another point he calls “Afrobeat Express”. This is perhaps a reference to the supercharged Rocket Juice & The Moon collaboration with Damon Albarn, Flea, Erykah Badu and Fatoumata Diawara and many others as part of Africa Express.
His approach to collaboration has always been open and accepting and this remains the same even if Film of Life is billed as a solo project.
“I’m not like Fela who writes compositions with music direct,” says Allen “I’m composing with my drumset. I’m not going to assume that I can write for instruments that I never played with before. After the drums are there and I play it fluidly then I can write other bits like the bass, guitars horns and keyboards.”
Allen is keen to encourage the best from musicians that he works with on his own projects, with appearances from Aduni Nefretiti, Kuku and Damon Albarn all setting the tone for the music. Allen talks about the song he created with his The Good, The Bad and The Queen collaborator.
“I would never dictate anything to him, because when I’ve invited Damon, I want Damon, you know? As long as he doesn’t dictate to me what he wants when he’s invited me. I know he will give me back something. I don’t need to tell him what to do. It’s like telepathy he can read me and I read him too.”
Certain tracks on the album also have a political message to his African brothers and sisters, no more so than Boat Journey, which warns against the dangers of migration.
“The song is about leaving your country because you have a bad situation but you can often face persecution elsewhere. Like me, I left Nigeria to come to Europe to change my situation because it was crazy back there. But I never lost my life. Even if the boat doesn’t capsize, they can face detention and if they’re lucky and they enter the country they don’t give them jobs to do and no-one employs them because they don’t have the correct papers. It’s like playing the Lottery. I’m just crying for the people that I see dying every time.”
After a brief spell in England, Allen finally settled in Paris in the early 1980s.
“Well I think Paris is happening for music. I also chose France because here I can walk, legally. I want to be able to walk freely across the world. In England I was stuck, they wouldn’t give you the right papers. For me it meant joblessness if I’d wanted to stay in England. And if I did make music there there’s always the thought that there’s an officer on your back every time to catch you if you were performing.”
Nevertheless, Village Underground has tempted him across the Channel in November. This is the perfect chance to catch a man who refuses to stand still.
Tony Allen comes to town on 20th November.