Beat perfect until the end

Published by The i paper (4th May, 2020)

Last Thursday I received an email from Audrey Gbaguidi, a singer whom I have known for almost a decade. She was touring as one of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds before the pandemic throttled the live music industry, but I first met her working with the legendary drummer Tony Allen. The pair had joined together again to record a song by the Togolese singer Bella Bellow, a star in the Sixties who died early in a car crash. “I hope to spread a little sweetness in this world,’ wrote Audrey.

By the time I replied to say thanks for sending the gorgeous song, she had just heard of Tony’s own death. Later I learned the 79-year-old had been full of beans that day, discussing plans with his manager, before collapsing at his Paris home. He was rushed to hospital, but died almost instantly. “I can’t process it – always so full of life and lovely mischief,” texted Audrey, who performs as Ysee.

It feels wrong that Tony Allen has gone. He seemed so permanent, so steady, both in music and in life. Tributes have poured in to a man recognised as the finest drummer of our lifetime, who has worked with so many great musicians since he helped Fela Kuti create Afrobeat half a century ago. Fela was the star, the singer, the rebel challenging military dictatorship – but it was Tony who gave their music such infectious groove, fusing Yoruba rhythms of his childhood with the jazz he heard on Forces Radio. “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?” asked Fela famously. It is impossible to underplay their impact.

Fela became a superstar, his furious lyrics reflecting the mood of many Africans as the optimism of independence was crushed by corruption and dictatorship. Their sounds were so futuristic Brian Eno said they changed his understanding of music while Paul McCartney went to worship at the iconic Shrine nightclub in Lagos after the Beatles split.

Now listen again to those incendiary tracks from the Seventies – then to Tony’s more recent work, such as his tracks with Damon Albarn in The Good, The Bad & The Queen or one just released by Gorillaz. The flowing drum patterns feel so familiar, so forceful and yet so languid, so lithe, despite the intensity of the shuffling groove. Always instantly recognisable.

Tony was a fixture in Africa Express  – the music project I founded with Damon and others to promote collaboration across borders, genres and generations. We have been privileged to work with some of the world’s best-known musicians, yet I was always struck to see how other artists often felt such awe towards this diminutive character in his seventies. At one show in Liverpool the drummer in a well-known indie band even asked if it would be all right to talk to him about their art. Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers came to Lagos largely to play with him at the Shrine.Perhaps our idea of gathering talent and dispensing with usual touring formalities suited him.

“Why do we need to soundcheck when we’ve already rehearsed,” he would ask when touring with bands, sitting with his trademark glass of “yellow water” and a spliff.  Yet few other mortals shared such intuitive talent. He made drumming look effortless as he slid into his seat with a smile.

He played gently, stroking rather than bashing his kit – a legacy of hours performing songs lasting maybe 20 minutes with Fela that would have exhausted more celebrated rock drummers. Tony told me once a drummer must use all four limbs, although such was his subtle dexterity you might have sworn he had extra arms and legs. “His movement was imperceptible,” reflected the producer Nick Gold.

Two things stood out beyond genius. The first was irreverence. “The world is less fun without him,” said Eric Trosset, his friend and manager for more than two decades. This joie de vivre could be seen sometimes on stage, when he might test others by taking music into unexpected new directions. It was certainly seen behind the scenes; on a trip to Kinshasa he offered to sort my meal in a restaurant and I ended up with a dish of fried grubs to his amusement. Later we smirked like school kids as a hungry British guitarist grabbed a handful of street food on his way to perform, then found his mouth filled with chicken bones during a long song.

The second was generosity. A fellow drummer called Pauli the PSM tells of banging away during our first Africa Express gig, a private event to test the concept at a Brixton pub in 2006. “I felt this presence behind me. I tried to ignore him but he was getting closer and closer until he pretty much took the sticks right out of my hands. That’s when I realised who it was.” Tony displayed his usual hypnotic tricks and the place rocked.

“That’s how you play the drums, my boy” he said afterwards – then invited Pauli to watch him at a club the next week. Halfway through the show, he summoned Pauli on stage as “the future of drumming”, then went on to mentor the younger artist. Tony was always happy to work with other genuine musical adventurers. In many ways he epitomised much that we sought to achieve with Africa Express.

Certainly I will never forget his arrival during the first public show – a five-hour set headlining the Park Stage at Glastonbury –that followed months of planning and many sleepless nights. When Norman Cook span “Zombie”, one of the greatest tracks by Fela, then Tony strolled on stage to play drums over the original track, it felt like our crazy idea of spontaneous collaboration might just work – especially when Damon and Baaba Maal joined in on the chorus.

He was, as ever throughout his extraordinary life, beat-perfect.

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