Tony Allen: the Afrobeat maverick who blazed a trail across the globe

Few musicians can claim to have invented a revolutionary rhythm, but then few are quite like the late Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen. Brian Eno called him “the greatest drummer that ever lived”, citing his style alongside James Brown’s funk breakbeat and the constant pulse of German band Neu! as the “three great beats of the 1970s”. Allen’s swirl of jazz, Yoruba and highlife was unlike anything the world had ever heard: a full-body polyrhythmic workout that would give most drummers sore wrists just thinking of it.

Allen came to prominence in Lagos alongside Fela Kuti. He started drumming in the late 50s while working at a radio station, looking to jazz icons such as Art Blakey and Max Roach for inspiration as he taught himself to play. In 1964 he met Kuti and they spent the next half-decade fine-tuning their fusion of west African party music and American funk and jazz, in the bands Koola Lobitos and, by 1969, Africa ’70. While Kuti, who died in 1997, is more well-known than his musical soulmate, he said that “without Tony Allen there would be no Afrobeat”.

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Allen has always said he didn’t invent Afrobeat per se, but his drumming was the genre’s backbone. He was a machine behind the kit, his method providing the foundation for Kuti’s fancies. Allen’s was a physical, multi-limbed approach. He thought drumming should be akin to “riding a bicycle”, as he told the Wire magazine. “You have to use your four limbs,” he said, which was “very rare” among drummers when he was starting out: “Maximum was three.” It’s little wonder Kuti said that Allen did the work of five drummers, though Allen went one further. “When I’m in a happy mood playing, you can hear me like six drummers,” he said in one interview. “On some days it could be 100!”

Guardian critic Robin Denselow called his style “constantly inventive yet never flashy … dominant, but never intrusive.” Although perhaps Allen would disagree with the flashy part – he once told Clash magazine: “I want people to hear my drums, I want my drums to sound like a piano. You have to hear different things at the same time, like a chord.”

For Allen, music was the most important message. He became notorious for his all-night sessions at Kuti’s club, the Shrine, where Brazilian legends Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and even Stevie Wonder would show up to jam. When Kuti’s compound Kalakuta Republic was raided by armed troops in 1977, Allen was on stage at the Shrine, lost in the groove. A year later, frustrated by Kuti’s increasingly erratic behaviour (you name it: his 27 wives, paranoia, political agitation, refusal to pay his band members), he quit Africa ’70 and went his own way.

He briefly relocated to London and then, in the mid-80s, to France, where he spent the first few years kicking a heroin habit. Throughout the 90s he kept working: as a session player for the likes of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and Manu Dibango. But by the end of the decade, Allen had come into his own. At the turn of the millennium, France was credited as “bringing back Afrobeat” and creating “the future of fusion”. The producers and selectors that he met in Paris, such as Frederic Galliano and particularly Doctor L, stoked his experimental spirit.

On his 1999 album Black Voices, Allen teamed up with Doctor L to bring dub and electronica into the fray. They worked together again on 2001’s Psyco on Da Bus. Meanwhile the UK Afro-centric reissue label Strut released his first four albums: Jealousy (1975), Progress (1977), No Accommodation for Lagos (1979) and No Discrimination (1979). From there, Allen entered the pop fray, working with French electro-pop artist Sébastien Tellier on the album Politics, and its standout song La Ritournelle, and Charlotte Gainsbourg in 2007.

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Allen worked with artists as varied as Detroit techno innovator Jeff Mills, Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Grace Jones and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But his best-known musical partnership since Kuti came with Damon Albarn. The Blur singer namechecked him on the band’s 2000 track Music Is My Radar (“Tony Allen really got me dancing”) and the pair struck up a kinship that lasted a decade, on The Good, the Bad & the Queen’s eponymous 2007 album and again for 2018’s Merrie Land. As with Kuti, Allen has said that the supergroup’s music was written after he had supplied his drum patterns; he also joined Albarn’s travelling cohort of contemporary and trad African musicians, Africa Express, in 2012.

There is no doubt Allen was intrigued by the music of the future, but he was also fervent about keeping the spirit of Afrobeat alive and passing his knowledge on to the next generation. Memorably, he hosted a drumming masterclass with Moses Boyd, one of the young leading lights of the UK’s (Afrobeat-indebted) jazz scene in what could be perceived as a symbolic passing of the baton.

Related: Tony Allen: Afrobeat’s master on Hugh Masekela, Damon Albarn and friction with Fela Kuti

Until 79, he seldom stopped playing, nor did he lose his interest in new music, with a voraciousness that puts his peers to shame. As recently as last month, Allen had said that his plans for 2020 had included working on an album with young musicians across Nigeria, London, Paris and the US to “bring them on my beat”. That he will no longer share that groundbreaking beat with the world is a devastating blow: Allen traversed scenes and sounds, bringing disparate music fans under his hypnotic groove. It felt like he’d be around to continue doing that for a good while longer.

His life is testament to the great physicality of live music and to keeping curiosity alive. “I don’t want to be stagnant or bored,” Allen said. Life is about “evolution”. As with those impossibly long sets at the Shrine, where he would play for a bladder-twisting six hours with no breaks, Allen just kept going.