1. Tony Oladipo Allen was born into a middle-class Lagos family and taught himself to play the drums while obsessing over jazz drummer heroes from the bebop era such as Art Blakey and Max Roach. He became a regular on the Lagos club circuit in the early 1960s, which was dominated by the West African highlife sound.
During this time, he met Fela Ransome Kuti, who was forming the Koola Lobitos, a highlife band. That band had evolved into Fela’s seminal Afrika 70 by 1968/69, led by Allen on drums and Lekan Animashaun on baritone saxophone.
2. In the 1960s and 1970s, Allen was the drummer and musical director for Fela Kuti’s band, Africa ’70. During that time, the pair created Afrobeat by fusing West African musical styles such as highlife and fuji music with jazz and funk from the United States. Afrobeat went on to become a totemic genre of twentieth-century African music.
3: After a mythic 26-year collaboration, Allen and Kuti parted ways, citing Kuti’s disorganization and debts to him as the reason for his departure. Allen left such a void in Kuti’s band that he needed several drummers to fill it.
4. While touring the United States for the first time with Kuti in 1969, he was inspired by west coast jazz drummer Frank Butler to practice every morning on pillows, bouncing his sticks off them while rolling. “It increases flexibility,” he explained. “Extremely effective. I tried to emulate [Butler’s] effortlessness.” He would sometimes drum for six hours straight as part of Kuti’s band.
5. At the age of 18, Allen taught himself to play the drums, drawing inspiration from US jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, as well as contemporary African music. He attributes his adaptability to the need to make a living as a gigging musician in Lagos in the early 1960s. “Latin American, African horns, jazz, highlife… you had to be able to play it all because they asked for it in the club,” he explained.
6. ‘Rejoice,’ a collaboration with Hugh Masekela, was his most recent album. When Allen was playing with Kuti in Nigeria in the 1970s, the two met.
He planned to work on a “travel album” this year, performing with young musicians in Nigeria, London, Paris, and the United States, “because I want to take care of youngsters – they have messages and I want to bring them on my beat,” he told the Guardian.
8. Although the drummer never achieved the commercial success or political influence of his friend, he quickly became a cultural icon of modern African music, particularly after Fela Kuti’s death in 1997. Allen was also a huge critics’ favorite for pushing musical boundaries with his distinct drumming sound until the end of his life.
9. Despite coming to the drums relatively late, the British musician and producer Brian Eno called Allen “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived”.
10. Tributes poured in from across the music industry, with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, a collaborator of Allen’s, posting an image of the drummer with a lengthy statement to Instagram. He is an Afrobeat co-founder.
‘The epic Tony Allen, one of the greatest drummers to ever walk the earth,’ Flea wrote. ‘What a wildman, with a massive, kind, and free heart and the deepest unique groove.’
‘Fela Kuti did not invent afrobeat; Fela and Tony birthed it together,’ he continued. There is no afrobeat without Tony Allen.