Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat

By Pena, Carlos | ARSC Journal, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat


Pena, Carlos, ARSC Journal


Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat. By Tony Allen with Michael E. Veal. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. 199pp (paperback). Photographs, Bibliography, Discography, Index. ISBN 9780822355915

Tony Allen's autobiography, co-authored with Michael E. Veal, achieves the rare duality of being a fun and engaging read for fans as well as a significant addition to Afrobeat and African popular music scholarship. Few genres have been dominated by a single artist as Fela Kuti (1938-1997) dominated Afrobeat. Fela's ego and penchant for authoritarian control were almost as well-known as his brilliantly danceable and political music. His bandleader and the only member of his large ensemble who was free to compose his own parts was his drum set player, Tony Allen (b. 1940). While Fela was Afrobeat's mastermind, Allen's contribution, representing the music's driving force, can hardly be underestimated when appraising the sources and impact of what has arguably become the most internationally renowned style of Nigerian popular music. Allen's position in the upper echelon of Afropop certainly warrants the publication of this work, and fans and scholars will not be disappointed by its content and style.

Veal's introduction contextualizes the work within African cultural studies as well as the tradition of the drum set, an instrument with complex meaning in Africa. He is an ideal collaborator for this project, during which he conducted extensive interviews with Allen and also spent time as a member of the drummer's working band. With the publication of Tony Allen, Veal continues the contribution to African and popular music scholarship that he began with his essential Fela: The Life & Times of an African Musical Icon (Temple University Press, 2000).

One value of autobiography is the reader's gained sense of intimacy with a celebrity's personality. In contrast with common stereotypes of drum set players, Veal's highly-readable reproduction of the "tone and flavor" of Allen's voice depicts the drummer as calm, wise, and level-headed. We learn interesting details such as Allen's skill as a chef and his early training as an electrician. At the same time, we increase our understanding of Afrobeat and of Fela from Allen's perspective that, due to his status as an original and premier sideman, is highly valuable. Allen brings certain subjects that were broached in Veal's earlier work into greater focus, such as the need to simplify the overly-complex music of Fela's first band, Koola Lobitos, in order to achieve Afrobeat's later success. Another example is the issue of money, with which Fela was not generally forthcoming. According to Allen, proper payment of sidemen was always an issue in the Nigerian popular music scene, and Fela's bands were no exception. For his part, Allen showed dedication in prioritizing music over money, until he finally had enough of Fela's antics and left the band in 1978.

The story of Allen's career, as seen here, accompanies and reflects the evolution of culture and politics in Nigeria and its neighboring countries. …

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