Tony Allen is a legendary musical icon. He was the drummer of Afrika 70 and influential co-creator of afrobeat music with Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He is currently on tour promoting his latest album, Secret Agent, out April 13, 2010 on Nonesuch Records. I had the distinct honor of speaking with Tony a couple weeks ago before he set out:
Marc Gabriel Amigone: My first question is you’re about to embark on a N. American Tour, are there any dates about which you’re particularly excited?
Tony Allen: No, not really.
MGA: So you’re excited about the whole tour?
Tony Allen: I’ll be coming to NY, and Toronto, and then I go back through the states and do the rest of my shows in the states.
MGA: I heard you’re going to be on Jimmy Fallon with The Roots and ?uestlove?
Tony Allen: Yes, in New York.
MGA: Do you have a relationship with ?uestlove or the Roots? Have you played with them before?
Tony Allen: I’ve never played with them before, but I’ve seen them play. You know,` so now we’re going to be working on the same program.
MGA: And you like The Roots?
Tony Allen: Oh yes, ?uestlove is a drummer himself too, so…
MGA: Right. So on your new album, Secret Agent, I’ve been listening to it a lot recently. How would you describe the direction you’re taking your music on your new album?
Tony Allen: Direction? It’s afrobeat I’m playing, you know? And I like different styles of afrobeat. It just comes from evolution.
MGA: Cool, cool. So throughout your career, I’ve heard a lot of your albums, you’ve been doing it for a long time. You’ve always demonstrated openness to new ideas, new sounds and instruments. For instance on Secret Agent you feature an accordion, which is not traditionally seen as an “afrobeat instrument” per se. Could you describe you the way that new sounds inspire you and the process by which you incorporate them into your music?
Tony Allen: Well, you know, it’s music. It’s not the instrument, the instrument doesn’t play itself anyway, you know? The point is the music of the instrument, whichever instrument I put in my music. It’s the sound, it’s soundwise, you know? It’s not a question of which instrument I use, it’s what I compose.
MGA: So if a sound catches your ear, it doesn’t matter what it is, you just want to put it into your music.
Tony Allen: Exactly.
MGA: Cool. So how would you describe how your music has developed and evolved from your first solo album, NEPA, to now, with Secret Agent.
Tony Allen: Ah, I will not try to explain it, I’ve done enough explaining. I’ve done NEPA, I’ve done Afrobeat Express, I’ve done Black Voices, I’ve done Psycho on The Bus, I’ve done Homecooking, Lagos No Shaking, and this one. Every one has its direction, but its still afrobeat.
MGA: One of the most famous quotes that’s most often associated with your name is from Fela Kuti, who said, ‘Without Tony Allen, there would be no afrobeat.’ Could you elaborate on that a bit, and explain how you contributed to afrobeat’s creation?
Tony Allen: Well, that is something that people are not supposed to be saying that, people that have been watching me, people that spoke with me. I’m just doing my job. I’m doing my job, and I’m creating. I like to be creating all the time because I can’t just keep playing the same shit all the time, you know? I have to create something else, whether people are going to take it or not, I’m just going to be moving forward, you know? That’s all.
MGA: What musicians or musical styles were you and Fela listening to when you were coming of age in Nigeria?
Tony Allen: I was playing my music before I met Fela, you know? There is a lot of music in the country, all different types of music. Jazz, waltz, two-step, tango, whatever, highlife, before I met Fela. Then when I met Fela, he said ‘ok, stop playing all those other styles’ and dictating.
MGA: Right, and do your own thing.
Tony Allen: Right.
MGA: So who are you listening to right now that’s inspiring, what are you listening to these days that you find interesting?
Tony Allen: Right now, I’m working with my band, I just finished our latest album, and now we’re taking things on the road, so that’s what I’m concentrating on now.
MGA: Cool, so what other bands or musicians within the genre of afrobeat do you find interesting or inspiring?
Tony Allen: Ah well, there’s a lot of them. Everybody’s doing their own style, so as long as they have the afrobeat, it’s cool. I don’t want to commit myself for anything. They’re all good.
MGA: You don’t want to single anybody out since there’s so many out there?
Tony Allen: No, I don’t.
MGA: What is your take on the Antibals-Bill T. Jones FELA! Production currently running on Broadway in New York?
Tony Allen: It’s afrobeat, so it’s cool. I’ve said before I would not comment.
MGA: Have you noticed any increased interest from the mainstream culture due to the popularity of the play?
Tony Allen: No.
MGA: Really, you haven’t noticed any increased interest?
Tony Allen: Well, when I said I wouldn’t comment, it means that… well you know there’s positive side of things. I can’t analyze everything, but it’s very good to expose afrobeat to people that never know what afrobeat is.
MGA: Word, word.
Tony Allen: I know there’s a positive side of things there, and I just hope it expresses enough to make more spring up.
MGA: Right, right. So in what direction do you see afrobeat evolving as more and more musicians take up afrobeat? Do you think the electronic side of things will take the lead with artists like Wunmi is going to grow, or do you think on the instrumental side of things?
Tony Allen: Well, it’s ok, I just know that afrobeat is music that has to be played by human beings together. I’ve experimented with electronics in my music but not taking out the drums that’s supposed to be played with it, so it depends on what everybody likes, you know? That’s why I don’t like to criticize what everybody’s else is playing. I just know what I’m playing.
MGA: Are there any goals or things you’d like to accomplish by the end of your career?
Tony Allen: The point is I look forward, I look forward. I never preview nothing, with my music. The day I decide, the day is there. If I decide I like something then I do it. There is a song on Secret Agent called Celebration.
MGA: Right, Celebrate Your Life, that’s a great song.
Tony Allen: Celebrate means celebrate everything, not just Christmas, or marriage, or anything it means celebrate all the time. Why should we not celebrate every day? Every day. You see, because every time you can go to sleep and wake up the next day, that’s something to celebrate. Because whatever you do is whatever you do. Simple as that.
MGA: Yea man, I agree 100%.
Tony Allen: Haha, you agree 100%?
MGA: Absolutely. I agree, I think every day should be a celebration.
Tony Allen: Absolutely, that’s the way I look at my life.
MGA: One last question. Your album Psycho On The Bus, I’ve always thought of as the quintessential afro-dub album. Were there any particular dub artists that inspired you to make that album?
Tony Allen: No it was a collaboration. It’s music. It’s afrobeat with a certain production style. You know, I have other things to think about.