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Tony Allen - Secret Agent

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Artist: Tony Allen

Album: Secret Agent

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Apr. 14, 2010


Tony Allen - "Secret Agent" (Secret Agent)


Fela Kuti’s sound, as is well known, owed much of its driving beat to two drummers, Pax Nicholas on percussion and African drums, and Tony Allen on drumkit. Both musicians joined Koola Lobitos as Fela was moving from a sort of big-band jazz into what would become Afrobeat; both have been compared favorably with contemporaneous funk giant Clyde Stubblefield; and both left Fela’s band in Berlin, in part as a result of the pressure from the Nigerian Army that culminated in the attack on the Kalakuta Republic. Of the two, however, Allen has had the more interesting post-Fela career, working with African, American, and European musicians creating everything from funk to jazz to electronica.

Secret Agent, his latest release, is a masterful blending of Afrobeat with all of the aforementioned musics. Every cut on this album has Allen’s driving beat behind it, although a bit more laid back than listeners may expect from other recent Afrobeat offerings. The tracks move, but they don’t rush; they simmer rather than boil. Nevertheless, other aspects of Afrobeat are front and center: lyrics in English, Pidgin, and Yoruba, often with politically engaged content, as well as funk-inflected horn breaks and jazzy solos. Missing, at least from the English and Pidgin lyrics, is Afrobeat’s misogynist streak — no songs declaring women to be untrustworthy on this disc, and no lectures on the proper place of women in society, either.

Secret Agent begins and ends with Tony Allen’s half-whispered lyrics, first on the title cut, which marries a funky rhythm section, bluesy guitar, and Afrobeat horns, and the last cut, “Elewon po,” which brackets a purer Afrobeat sound with an intro quoting the opening of the theme from Shaft, then swings into something much more reminiscent of early Fela. His lyrics are politically charged (“Too many prisoners / Too many prisoners / Too many, far too many”), his voice soft and barely melodic.

In between the bookends, Tony Allen pushes forward new performers, including soul singer Orobiyi Adunni (“Ijo,” “Ayenlo,” “Nina Lowo,” “Atuwaba”), neo-soul rapper Bola Dumoya (“Switch”), and Afrobeat singer King Odudu. Adunni (also known as AYO) is a standout, with a lush, flexible voice and diction that can zoom from Detroit to Lagos in an instant. “Ijo,” the second cut on the disc and an anthem to the universal appeal of Afrobeat, is a great choice for the No. 2 position, with a no-apologies dance beat that irresistibly weaves together guitars, drums, bass and horn licks; Adunni’s voice holds it all together.

Make no mistake: although clearly in the geneology of Afrobeat, Secret Agent is not just another entry in an early 21st century revival. Since leaving Fela and striking out on his own, Tony Allen has grown and changed. This album bears witness to his development of Afrobeat beyond the shadow of Fela Kuti and, as Allen begins his 70th decade, points toward the future, not the past.

By Richard Miller

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