Afrobeat hero still hitting the sticks and sticking the pace
It's been a festival of special celebrations. Jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler visited Belfast last night as part of his 80th birthday tour, while drummer Tony Allen makes his debut at the Mandela Hall tonight on the heels of blowing out 70 candles on his cake.
You’d think he’d be considering hanging up his drumsticks, but no. The Nigerian hero of Afrobeat, described by Brian Eno as “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived”, refuses to contemplate a time when he isn’t making music. “You look forward to doing what things appeal to you,” he says.
These days Allen lives in Paris and collaborates with singers like Damon Albarn and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
While life is sweet, it’s also strenuous, and Allen has been getting into shape for his six-date tour in Britain. “I do what’s necessary,” he says. “You’ve got to be fit all the time, like footballers have to be fit to be on the field.”
He puts his fitness down to playing for six hours without a break, something he used to do for years. “Now the maximum you’re ever on stage is two hours. Sometimes I feel just when you start to warm up, the set’s over.”
While stamina is something he works on, Allen confesses he no longer practises daily. If he has no concert to prepare for, he picks up his sticks just once a week.
Allen first hit a drum at the age of 18 when he was working as an engineer at a Nigerian radio station. His musical influences came from far and wide — American jazz, juju and highlife — the only guy in Nigeria who played like that, according to the man he was to team up with in Koola Lobitos, Fela Kuti.
Allen played on more than 30 Fela Kuti albums, and since Kuti’s death has been the keeper of the flame of Afrobeat.
Legend has it that Allen can drum in a different time signature with each limb — all at the same time. It’s a legend he’s in no hurry to dispel. “A good drummer has two legs and two arms, and they’re all playing different things,” he said.
While drumming, he’s even managed to invent his own rhythm — the one known as Afrobeat.
“If you want music to stick around, you have to keep moving,” he says. “The core is in the rhythm, and the rhythm is Afrobeat. People have to learn to feel the groove.”
You can feel the beat tonight, when Allen hits his kit at the Mandela Hall.
Tony Allen, Mandela Hall, 8pm