The Pioneer of Afrobeat: A Tribute to Tony Allen

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On Friday 1 May, the acclaimed drummer Tony Allen passed away at the age of 79, just weeks after the release of his latest body of work, Rejoice. Allen was widely regarded as a founder of afrobeat and as one of the world’s greatest drummers.

His musical career spans six decades and comprises all manner of musical projects. Born in Lagos, Allen developed an interest in the drums from a young age, teaching himself how to play alongside his day job as a technician for Nigerian national radio. His dynamic, jazz-inspired style caught the attention of rising talent Fela Kuti – who would go on to be a highly celebrated and charismatic figure of the African music scene – and together they played in a range of formations, initially as Koola Lobitos and most famously as Africa ‘70.

Moving into the 1980s, Allen formed his own group, and merged Fela’s afrobeat sound with electronica and dub qualities, devising a distinctive new genre: afro-funk. He produced a multitude of releases with a diverse array of collaborators, often releasing an album a year throughout his musical career, each of which manifested new takes on his previous work while preserving his syncopated, sophisticated drum style. 

As the 2000s dawned, so did Allen’s manifold collaborations with Damon Albarn, which soon stepped up from one-off songs like ‘Every Season’ to fully-fledged bands – namely The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Rocket Juice & The Moon. In recent years Allen has also worked with funk-infused electronic producers, including Motor City Drum Ensemble and Folamour, bringing his signature sounds into the modern dance landscape and all the while maintaining a masterful control over his own style.

Allen’s latest release, Rejoice, debuted less than two months ago, and is a short yet smooth masterpiece, paying homage to his roots in ‘Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be The Same)’. The album acts as an incredible culmination to Allen’s momentous musical career.

His death has sent waves of grief throughout generations and nations, and leaves a gaping hole in the music community. Gorillaz heeded the news with the early release of ‘How Far?’, which features Allen alongside Skepta, and serves as a poignant reminder of Allen’s versatile musicianship. Tony Allen’s status as an unrivalled drummer and afrobeat pioneer will live on, etched into the fabric of his music and the lives of those his music has touched.