Fela Anikulapo Kuti is generally credited as the “inventor” of Afrobeat, and his contributions-as a catalyst, bandleader and lyricist-were indeed crucial. But the credit needs to be shared with Allen, Kuti’s drummer from 1964 – 1980, who created Afrobeat’s signature, lazily insistent rhythms, and who played on all the classic Afrika 70 albums. Kuti once said that Allen played “like four drummers,” and indeed, Allen’s rhythms fuse four distinct drum traditions-highlife, soul/funk, jazz and traditional West African roots. Without Allen, Afrobeat might never have happened. So important had his role been, that when he left Afrika 70, Kuti broke the band up, forming Egypt 80 a few months later.
Allen, who’s been based in Paris since the mid ’80s, had a quiet ’90s, but moved up a gear towards the end of the decade. Secret Agent is his fifth album as leader since 1999, and follows the magisterial Lagos No Shaking from 2006. In the last couple of years, Allen has also been one-quarter of the boundary busting super group The Good, The Bad & The Queen, alongside vocalist Damon Albarn, bassist Paul Simonon and guitarist Simon Tong.
Raw and uncut, foursquare in the roots Afrobeat tradition, Secret Agent has all the ingredients that combine to make the style so special. Fat, full-throated, hard riffing horns, nagging tenor guitars, jazz- and funk-informed saxophone and trumpet solos, 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-call and response vocals, and, of course, energising everything around it, Allen’s magnificent drumming.
A couple of laid-back, late-night tracks provide balladic respite. Elsewhere 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, drawing the cross-rhythms into one irresistible forward motion.
Somehow, Afrobeat sounds as relevant in 2009 as it did back in Fela Kuti’s heyday. Its catholic blend of jazz and funk with traditional African rhythms, and its socially engaged lyrics (purposefully sung in Broken English by Kuti to communicate across indigenous linguistic barriers), was the sound of 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, with this compelling debut release on the World Circuit label – home of the globally successful Buena Vista Social Club – is ready for it. – All About Jazz