Tony Allen: Pioneer of Afrobeat Music and the controversies of his legacy

Legendary Drummer Tony Allen

Tony Allen, the renowned Afrobeat drummer, songwriter and composer, died on 30 April 2020, at the age of 79. As a tribute to legacy, several organizations and people highlighted his stellar achievements, particularly his contributions to the growth of Afrobeat music. He was heralded by the BBC as the “World’s greatest drummer” and “Afrobeat pioneer” and the New York Times declared: “Tony Allen, Drummer Who Created the Beat of Afrobeat, Dies at 79. Many prominent persons, not just media outlets made statements to signify that there would be no Afrobeat without Tony Allen. Most of these people gave credit to Fela Anikulapo Kuti for making this affirmation about Tony Allen.

by Ogbeche Ohotuowo

Femi Kuti however seems to disagree. The Independent UK, in an interview 12 years ago reported that this claim that Tony Allen created Afrobeat confirmed by the great Fela Kuti when he said that that “Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.

Fela’s son, the established Afrobeat musician and saxophonist, Femi Kuti has however absolutely denied that his father ever made such a statement.

In an Instagram live session held on Monday, 25 May 2020 with Channels TV, Femi refuted the claims that Fela credited Tony Allen with creating Afrobeat, saying that they are unfounded: “If Fela ever made such a statement, how come we didn’t hear of it in his lifetime? How come it was never written in any of the books?”

He challenged, not just the truth that Fela made the statement, but also whether it is correct at all. “Who said it? …Is it to destroy his legacy or to cheat his legacy? These are the questions we have to ask.” It is uncertain how such a statement would lay a part in destroying Allen’s legacy but Femi remained certain that Fela did not credit Tony Allen with creating the genre of Afrobeat music.

Femi Kuti, who started playing the saxophone at the age of 15 and later joined his father’s band, is clearly well versed with the rudiments of Afrobeat music. He stated that such a statement, if it were ever made, would have been properly recorded and would not be causing the controversy which exists today. According to him, “I love Tony Allen, he was a great drummer. But that he put those drum patterns for my father? It’s not true.” Femi Kuti’s point is to restate that Fela is solely responsible for creating the music his band played, even writing out all the parts for his band members.

Tony Allen himself reportedly confirmed this when he told The Independent UK that “Fela used to write out the parts for all the musicians in the band but I was the only one who originated the music I played.” Can this statement not be interpreted to mean that Tony Allen indeed created his own beats and music and was likely an exception to all the other band members? If anything, Tony Allen’s contributions should not be downplayed or regarded as secondary.

Fela himself confirmed Allen’s mastery and versatility in being the only person (at the time they met) who played highlife and jazz, artfully fusing the two genres: “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?” They worked together for 16 years before Tony Allen left Fela’s band, following a dispute about his royalties and credits due to him.

Regardless of this controversy, Tony Oladipo Allen’s status is undisputed; his legacy is that of a pioneer and the respect people have for him and his music remains within the industry, across borders. His long and fulfilling career as an internationally-acclaimed drummer, composer and songwriter cannot be taken away from him. Many people still regard him, bless his soul, as one of the greatest pioneers of Afrobeat music. According to Brian Eno, Allen is “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”. Interestingly, his autobiography was co-written with Michael E. Veal, the same author who had previously written a biography of Fela Kuti.

Tony Allen is a shining example of a life of success. He ventured into music at the age of 18, when he started playing drums even as an engineer for a radio station. He developed a unique voice and pattern on the drums through rigorous study of musical articles, and legends in the industry who had revolutionised the game. Allen played with the late Sir Victor Olaiya’s Cool Cats and other notable bands such as Agu Norris and the Heatwaves, the Melody Makers and the Nigerian Messengers.

Notwithstanding the contention, which is seemingly raised by only Fela Kuti, Tony Allen’s legacy is one of excellent and outstanding music which greatly contributed to the Afrobeat genre, the music industry, and helped promote our indigenous music on international platforms. Maybe he was the not sole creator of Afrobeat, but from all indications, he was definitely a co-founder to the fusion of jazz, punk and African music that we now know as Afrobeat. Tony Allen’s albums include Rejoice (2014), The Source (2017), Film of Life (2014), Lagos No Shaking (2006), among others.

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