Tony Allen talks about his and Fela Kuti’s early group Koola Lobitos, four-limbed drumming, the necessity of hi-hats to Afrobeat, his favourite jazz drummers, and how Black Panther Sandra Isidore politicised Fela. Interview by Francis Gooding
Time obeys Tony Allen, not the other way round. As the drummer lynchpin of Fela Kuti’s Afrika 70, Allen is a giant of modern music; and being the originator of Afrobeat drumming, he is one of the true innovators in 20th century rhythm. I met Allen in January, when he came to London to participate in a duo with Jimi Tenor on a Moog project running for two nights at Dalston’s Cafe Oto. Meanwhile, the Knitting Factory label will soon be reissuing recordings of Koola Lobitos, the pre-Afrika 70 group which Fela and Allen formed together. Perfect timing, then, to ask Allen to revisit his early days in music.
Francis Gooding: Over the decades, you’ve visited and worked in London a lot. When did you first come here?
Tony Allen: First time I visited London was in 1971, with Fela, when we were touring with Ginger Baker. We toured around England and ended up in London. There was a club called Speakeasy and we did a show. And then we went to the studio, Abbey Road studio, to record Fela’s London Scene.
But Fela had of course spent a long time in London before that.
He studied here, he studied five years here. After that, he went back home, and started the Koola Lobitos, from doing jazz first.
Koola Lobitos is something I’d like to talk to you about as it’s a less well documented part of yours and Fela’s careers, even though the group lasted quite a while...
Ah, because nobody cared about [the group] at that time, because it was like a revolutionary music style coming to the country. They were used to the highlife thing, you know? Nobody had tried to fuse highlife with jazz. The jazz touch. Nobody. It was kind of strange for the people.
How did audiences receive it?
Strange. They didn't take to it immediately – only music lovers, [who were] inquisitive, knew exactly where it was happening, that this revolution was here. Some believed. Those ones that believed would come in. Students, college guys, were our fans, most of our fans. At first it was not so easy.
Did Koola Lobitos play in Ghana as well as at home in Nigeria?
We did. We were playing in Ghana all the time. That’s where the name for the style was formed. By the promoter, you know? He advised Fela, ‘Why is this music called highlife jazz?’ It doesn't make sense, that we should have the name highlife. So for instance, there is Afro-rock, Afro-funk, Afro-whatever. And then he said, ‘Why not call this one Afrobeat’?’ It was advice, from the promoter to Fela. And that was it. It was from Ghana, from our tour of Ghana.
You yourself had started out playing with highlife bands, right?
Yes, with Victor Olaiya, Agu Norris, everybody. Highlife, plus Western music – we had to copy what was on the records, you know? We had to play that in the clubs, so it was a mixture of music – highlife, plus tango, quick-step, everything.
How did you first join Fela in Koola Lobitos?
We formed the band together, direct. He just told me, he would like me to be with him, from the beginning. And then when he was ready, he came to call me. He sent his manager to tell me, maybe I should resign from where I was for us to start this thing together. I just believed that if I wanted to be one of the best drummers, then the only way I could be one of the best drummers is to have challenges. You know what I mean? Challenge, challenge… To work it out, to have the edge, one needs somebody like that, like Fela.
Someone who would always push…
Exploring every time, you know?
Was it clear from the start that Fela had a different vision?
No, at first he was like everyone. He would try to sing things for the people, like singing love songs, or whatever. Not until after the States. When we arrived in the States, with the Black Panther thing just finishing, his girlfriend [Sandra Isidore] happened to be in the Black Panthers. That gave him other ideas – of pan-Africanism, you know? Because this girlfriend made him aware politically... he had political blood anyway. [His] mother was very outspoken, for the country, and he followed up. And when he started to smoke, he saw things in a different perspective, in a different way which was not the way he was seeing things in the past. So he became a revolutionary. He took a revolutionary approach to his music, and [he took] his music to attack the system.
Right. Part of that revolutionary change was the actual sound of the music – and as much as anything else, it’s your drumming that signals this revolution. How did you develop the sound that was so central to Afrika 70’s music?
I just tried to develop my way of playing my drums, you know? I had seen other drummers – before I started to play my drums, I watched many drummers, many drummers, and they all played the same way. They were good drummers, but…
Who were your favourites?
When I was wanting to change my own way [of playing], I was listening to a lot of jazz. I was listening to Blue Note records, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, listening to many of these drummers. Gene Krupa was the first one – though he was not playing the same style like them there, you know? But watching drummers playing in my country, I knew that something was wrong somewhere. Why is it that they don’t use their hi-hats? It’s there, it’s always there, but its closed, they don’t use it – well, they used it, but that thing has a pedal, you know? I felt that this thing should be like riding a bicycle – you have good legs, you have pedals, you need to put [your feet] on both pedals to make you move. You can’t start riding a bicycle with one leg, when you have two legs, and the other pedal is there. So, it was that, and then I had to find a way of playing my drums, playing highlife, like everybody, but – I had read this hi-hat teaching from Max Roach, and I said, yes, I know this thing is supposed to be used. So I tried to adapt it. I had to practise, to adapt this movement of the hi-hat plus what we were doing before, and that changed my movement, my way of playing, directly, you know? Every drummer in the country at that time… when I was playing in the local highlife band, they would come to watch, asking me, ‘What [are you] doing? What is that?’ Just because I had added hi-hats to the sound. It made a big difference for the other drummers, because they never did it, until I tried it.
It’s interesting that you mention Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Max Roach, because they were among the first of their generation to take a close interest in African drumming, introducing complex polyrhythms into what they were doing.
Yes, yes. They passed through. Art Blakey lived in Ghana for two years… I could feel that from his playing, that’s why he became my idol. Listening to all the Blue Notes [records], when this guy is playing – this guy was not like all the Americans, he has the influence of the African… [African] touches, you know? He was different. Different from the others. … I started to discover my way of playing when I started to play the drums, but I didn't want to play like others. I just wanted to make sure I used this instrument the way it was put in front of me. Meaning that it’s four limbs: you have to use your four limbs. Which was very rare for the other drummers to use their four limbs. Maximum was three.
When you’re behind the drums, do you still feel there are new things that you can do?
I never stop. I never stop experimenting. I don’t like repeating myself too much. I need to move forward.
Tony Allen will be performing at Soundcrash's The Funk & Soul Weekender, Camber Sands Holiday Camp, East Sussex, UK. The line-up also includes Afrika Bambaataa, Roy Ayers, Fatima & The Eglo Band, and others. The festival takes place between 13–15 May. Tickets are available via their website.
Fela Ransome Kuti And His Koola Lobitos’s Highlife, Jazz And Afro-Soul (1963–1969) will be released by Knitting Factory on 1 April.