Learn How

We need your help in 2018

Support All About Jazz All About Jazz is looking for 1,000 backers to help fund our 2018 projects that directly support jazz. You can make this happen by purchasing ad space or by making a donation to our fund drive. In addition to completing every project (listed here), we'll also hide all Google ads and present exclusive content for a full year!


Tony Allen: Secret Agent

Chris May By

Sign in to view read count
Tony Allen
Secret Agent
World Circuit

It's been a good six months for Afrobeat, the turbulent jazz meets funk meets West African roots music associated with the Nigerian singer Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938 - 1997) and his bands Afrika 70 and Egypt 80. There have been cracking albums from, first, Fela's son Seun, and now Afrika 70 founder member Tony Allen.

When Kuti died, it seemed for a while as though Afrobeat might have died with him, so dominant had his presence been since the style's creation in the late 1960s/early 1970s. His son Femi was quick to pick up the reins, but, 12 years on, has yet to evince the concentrated fire and passion his father made such a defining feature of the music. Then, in late 2008, Seun released the blistering Many Things (Tot ou Tard), made with members of Egypt 80, and all bets were on again. And now Allen, Fela's longtime drummer and collaborator, pitches in with Secret Agent, another sterling set.

Kuti is generally credited as the "inventor" of Afrobeat, and his contributions—as a catalyst, bandleader and lyricist—were indeed crucial. But the credit needs to be shared with Allen, Kuti's drummer from 1964 - 1980, who created Afrobeat's signature, lazily insistent rhythms, and who played on all the classic Afrika 70 albums. Kuti once said that Allen played "like four drummers," and indeed, Allen's rhythms fuse four distinct drum traditions—highlife, soul/funk, jazz and traditional West African roots. Without Allen, Afrobeat might never have happened. So important had his role been, that when he left Afrika 70, Kuti broke the band up, forming Egypt 80 a few months later.

Allen, who's been based in Paris since the mid '80s, had a quiet '90s, but moved up a gear towards the end of the decade. Secret Agent is his fifth album as leader since 1999, and follows the magisterial Lagos No Shaking (Honest Jons, 2006). In the last couple of years, Allen has also been one-quarter of the boundary busting super group The Good, The Bad & The Queen, alongside vocalist Damon Albarn, bassist Paul Simonon and guitarist Simon Tong.

Raw and uncut, foursquare in the roots Afrobeat tradition, Secret Agent has all the ingredients that combine to make the style so special. Fat, full-throated, hard riffing horns, nagging tenor guitars, jazz- and funk-informed saxophone and trumpet solos, effervescent chicken-shack keyboards, lyrics rich in folk metaphors and proverbs—some of which confront state corruption and oppression, Kuti's most frequent targets, still alive and toxic in Nigeria today—call and response vocals, and, of course, energising everything around it, Allen's magnificent drumming.

A couple of laid-back, late-night tracks provide balladic respite. Elsewhere Allen drives the music on, straight as an arrow, but without recourse to simple time-keeping, working almost elliptically, in a loose-limbed ragged shuffle, nudging and bumping round the edges, drawing the cross-rhythms into one irresistible forward motion.

Allen's Paris-based band comprises players from Nigeria, Cameroon, Martinique and France. Vocals, however, stay the preserve of Nigerians, and are shared between Allen and singers/lyricists Orobiyi Adunni, King Odudu, Bola Dumoye, Kefee Obareki and Abiodun Oke. The lyrics are variously sung in Yoruba, English, Broken English and Orobo. Allen's "Secret Agent" is in English and his "Elewon Po" ("too many prisoners") in Broken English, English and Yoruba. The four lyrics written by Adunni—"Ijo" ("dance"), "Nina Lowo" ("money is to be spent"), "Ayenlo" ("time is going, the world is moving") and "Atuwaba" ("no matter if things are bad, it will get better")—also use this trio of languages. Obareki's "Busybody" is in English and Orobo. Odudu's "Celebrate" and "Pariwo" ("shout, protest, make some noise") are in English and Broken English. Oke's "Alutere" ("the message the drums transmit") is in Yoruba. "Switch" (Dumoye's alias) is sung in English and Broken English.

Somehow, Afrobeat sounds as relevant in 2009 as it did back in Fela Kuti's heyday. Its catholic blend of jazz and funk with traditional African rhythms, and its socially engaged lyrics (purposefully sung in Broken English by Kuti to communicate across indigenous linguistic barriers), was the sound of shanty towns across West Africa in the 1970s. Today it also speaks of and to growing, polyglot, inner city diasporas in Europe and North America. It could be that Afrobeat is about to begin another spell in the global spotlight.

If so, Tony Allen, with this compelling debut release on the World Circuit label—home of the globally successful Buena Vista Social Club—is ready for it.


Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko African Jazz Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko
by Chris May
Published: January 14, 2013
Read Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab and Guinea’s Authenticite Movement Show Their Roots African Jazz Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab and Guinea’s...
by Chris May
Published: February 3, 2012
Read Owiny Sigoma Band: Rising From The East African Jazz Owiny Sigoma Band: Rising From The East
by Chris May
Published: May 1, 2011
Read Compilations: Doing The Right Thing African Jazz Compilations: Doing The Right Thing
by Chris May
Published: December 5, 2010
Read The Majestic “Return” of King Sunny Ade & His African Beats African Jazz The Majestic “Return” of King Sunny Ade &...
by Chris May
Published: September 29, 2010
Read Senegal's Etoile de Dakar featuring Youssou N'Dour and south London's Yaaba Funk African Jazz Senegal's Etoile de Dakar featuring Youssou...
by Chris May
Published: June 1, 2010
Read "Tal Wilkenfeld Live At The Belly Up Tavern" SoCal Jazz Tal Wilkenfeld Live At The Belly Up Tavern
by Jim Worsley
Published: November 21, 2017
Read "Miles From India at SFJAZZ" Live Reviews Miles From India at SFJAZZ
by Walter Atkins
Published: April 14, 2017
Read "Newport Jazz Festival 2017" Live Reviews Newport Jazz Festival 2017
by Timothy J. O'Keefe
Published: August 18, 2017
Read "Tim Motzer: Wandering the Depths of Space" Multiple Reviews Tim Motzer: Wandering the Depths of Space
by Geno Thackara
Published: May 22, 2017
Read "The Wee Trio: Full of Surprises" Interview The Wee Trio: Full of Surprises
by Geno Thackara
Published: January 27, 2017

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!