Tony Allen Finds New Groove For Afrobeat

With his new album, Black Voices, and a U.S. tour, Nigerian drummer reintroduces Afrobeat to new audience.

Tony Allen was one of the chief architects of Afrobeat in the 1970s, and now, 30 years later, he's reinventing it.

His new album, Black Voices (Comet France), is a huge formal leap both for him and for Afrobeat.

Allen made his reputation in Nigeria as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's drummer and bandleader; dozens of the late Fela's '70s albums are marked with Allen's detailed, percussive kick, built on funk rhythms that flicker and re-form themselves constantly, cascading with the steadiness of a waterfall.

On Black Voices cuts such as the title track (RealAudio excerpt) and "Asiko" (RealAudio excerpt), Allen has removed the brass and volume of classic Fela, stripped his group down as far as it will go, augmented his beats with the bass undertow and rapidly shifting studio textures of dub and integrated the electronics of producer Doctor L.

Currently headquartered in Paris, Allen's getting ready to tour the U.S. in early April with his Black Voices band, which includes former P-Funkers Mike "Clip" Payne (bass) and Gary "Mudbone" Cooper (guitar). SonicNet talked to him about his new groove.

SonicNet: Tell us about the band that's touring the U.S.

Tony Allen: It's a small group — I can't afford a big band. Everyone expects an Afrobeat band to be a big band; everybody expects to have horns in Afrobeat music. I always write my horns anyway — I write my horns every time I'm composing, in case there's going to be horn men. But if there's not, I have a way of doing it myself. I'm singing myself, and kind of chanting the horn section. I'm after my beat, the beat, the beat. If you're watching, you're dancing.

SonicNet: How do you translate the new material to a live setting?

Allen: With all that [Doctor L's electronics are] going to be delivering as techno, we have space to fill up in the music. For a long time I've been looking for a way to fuse techno with the live thing; but it took some time to arrive, really. The Afrobeat audience from the '60s, '70s and '80s kind of said that Afrobeat should be this way, you know? I don't look at it this way.

SonicNet: What can you tell us about the state of Afrobeat now?

Allen: I just want to present it as not just a particular, specific beat. It's different patterns, and it's coming from the music. Personally, me, I'm the beat. I'm the one creating the patterns, and I write on my patterns — I put all the other things on top of it.

SonicNet: Why do you think it took the U.S. so long to catch on to Afrobeat?

Allen: That's what I'm asking myself. It started getting popular in Africa from 1970. From '70 to f---ing goddamn 2000 is ... 30 years, you know? It's been going on nonstop. Even when I left Fela, I never stopped playing Afrobeat.

SonicNet: What don't people understand about it?

Allen: It's just fantastic dance music, you know? People think that a message of militancy or whatever is Afrobeat. If I have anything to say, I will say it, but if not, it could be love songs! The whole root of Afrobeat is militant by itself. The beat is not on the beat, it's off the beat, you understand? It's already militant within the music, without talking about the lyrics.