Tony Allen, the pioneering drummer with Fela Kuti passed away on Thursday evening, aged 79. Allen was described by Brian Eno as being “the greatest drummer who ever lived”.
Allen’s manager Eric Trosset confirmed the drummer’s death to France 24, saying: “We don’t know the exact cause of death,”, adding it was not linked to the coronavirus. Trosset mourned: “He was in great shape, it was quite sudden. I spoke to him at 1pm then two hours later he was sick and taken to Pompidou hospital, where he died.”
Allen, who was born in Lagos in 1940, went on to become the drummer and musical director of Fela Kuti’s band Africa ’70 in the 1960s and 70s where they would go on to help define the genre of Afrobeat which is now dominating the charts today.
The iconic drummer, who emigrated to London in 1984 and in his later years moved to Paris, worked alongside a host of different contemporary artists throughout his career. Famously, Allen worked alongside Damon Albarn, Paul Simenon and Simon Tong as was the drummer for The Good, the Bad & the Queen, a band who returned with a new album recently.
Notably, Allen also played the drums for the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Moritz Von Oswald and joined forces with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bass player Flea in a project called Rocket Juice and The Moon.
Tributes have poured in thick and fast as the world of music celebrates Allen’s vast achievements with Flea from poignantly writing: “The epic Tony Allen, one of the greatest drummers to ever walk this earth has left us. What a wildman, with a massive, kind and free heart and the deepest one-of-a-kind groove. Fela Kuti did not invent afrobeat, Fela and Tony birthed it together. Without Tony Allen there is NO afrobeat. I was lucky enough to spend many an hour with him, holed up in a London studio, jamming the days away. It was fucking heavenly. He was and still is, my hero.”
He continued: “I wanted to honour his greatness so much when we played together, and I was nervous when we started, but he made me laugh like a two-year-old, and we fell right into pocket. I lit up like a Christmas tree every time I knew we were about to lay down some rhythm. With Tony’s longtime musical collaborator, friend and champion, Damon Albarn, we jammed till the cows came home. We partied in Nigeria, we partied around Europe, and it was always about the music. Just grooving high, grooving deep. Tony Allen, I love you, I’m so grateful to have had the chance to rock with you. God bless your beautiful soul.”
Brian Eno, who stumbled across the work of Allen when he randomly purchased a vinyl record in the early 1970s, once explained: “I think I liked the cover, and I think I liked the fact that the band had so many members,” he told The Vinyl Factory in 2014. “It changed my whole feeling about what music could be… when I first met Talking Heads and we were talking about working together, I played [Kuti’s 1973 album Afrodisiac] for them and said: This is the music of the future.”
“I love the density of the weave between the players,” Eno added. “I love the relationship of discipline and freedom shown in this. It’s not jamming in the do-whatever-you-like sense. But it’s not constrained parts in the orchestral sense either.”
See an example of Allen’s work, below.