Nigerian drummer Tony Allen rigged the skeletal system for the music, at once festive and meditative and collected and free, that came to be called “Afro-beat.” If that term makes you a bit queasy, it’s because this is some of the world’s best party music, from the world’s most misunderstood continent, and any complicit verbal nod is bound to debase its glory. As much as any other music, this music is best heard and dug without the neck-down paralysis of analysis. This is music for dancing and for mobile meditation. If you can’t shut up for the 10-to 20-minute duration of a cut, you’ll not hear as much.
Anyway. Tony is best known as a drummer for the late, great Fela Kuti, but he was no one’s supplicative session cat. He also composes with rare complexity and raps with cool, observant authority, whether he’s breaking down some typically heavy African sociopolitical drama, dressing down kids for playing in traffic, or laying down a metaphor that could be one thing, the other, or both. He’s assimilated and defined funk, jazz, rhythm, blues, disco, and hip hop (their ornery, oft-disowned love child). He’s worked with aural royalty from Africa (King Sunny Ade, Manu Dibango, et al) and points beyond (most recently, he joined Damon Albarn’s supergroup The Good, The Bad and The Queen). He’s coveted as an Olympian drummer and respected as confident leader.
Here are the solo records that really got everyone on his jock and kept him in demand, long after he and Kuti parted company. These tracks go on and on and on. They expand and they contract. Allen’s vocals convey interpersonal prayers. He begs his brothers for peace. He begs his countrymen for strength. He begs the ladies for some warm bodily contact, because love is a natural thing. And he begs the kids to look both ways as they cross the road. As in all things, he begs with authority, and not in a detached way. He doesn’t command, but he communicates. When the vocals drop out, the horns kick in. The horns escalate, drop, and play cycles that intensify through repetition. Meanwhile, the rhythm section percolates with discipline and determination. The result is a thick stew that could only get better if it cooked all week.
Like a lot of interesting “dance” music, this is the sort of stuff that you can’t “get” until somewhere in the middle of the seventh minute, when it detaches itself from the expectations of pop. “Disco” doesn’t cut it, but this is what disco, in its platonic form, is going for.