Tony Allen: The veteran Afrobeat drummer is shaking his sticks as hard and as brilliantly as ever

The musician is back with a nationwide tour, a new album and a fresh collaboration with Damon Albarn
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The Independent Culture

According to legend, Tony Allen can drum in a different signature with each limb simultaneously. Ask him if it's true and his eyes twinkle. "For sure," he says. "A good drummer has two legs and two arms and they're all playing different things."

Listen to Allen's extraordinary cross-rhythms on all those great Fela Kuti records and you realise he's not exaggerating. "Most composers write a drum part with a regular beat that anybody in the whole world could play," he says. "I always like to extract the beat that's there and then try lots of different beats and different ways of drumming around it. That's the only way not to get bored."

Brian Eno and Damon Albarn have described Allen as the greatest drummer on the planet – and it's hard to disagree. Few percussionists, after all, can claim to have invented a rhythm – but that's what Allen did when he added his propulsive rhythms to the music of Kuti and together they created the sound the world came to know as Afrobeat.

Drumming is a highly physical discipline, but at 67 Allen shows no sign of letting up. Next month, he's off on the African Soul Rebels tour around Britain on an impressive triple bill featuring his own band, the former Positive Black Soul rapper Awadi and the great Salif Keita. He's currently recording both a new Allen record and a second The Good, The Bad & The Queen album with fellow band mates Albarn, Paul Simonon and Simon Tong. After that, he's signed on for a James Brown in Africa project, which will unite African musicians and former Brown sidemen.

He has his own explanation for his indefatigability. "In Africa, when I used to play with Fela, it was six hours non-stop," he says. "That's what I was used to for years – playing all night. Now the maximum you're ever on stage is two hours. Sometimes I feel just when you start to warm up, that's when the set's over and you have to stop. It's disappointing."

Small and wiry with a beanie pulled down over his ears, he meets me in Paris, where he has lived for the past 20 years. I'd been warned that he had a tendency to talk in parables, but he seems surprisingly direct and very focused, particularly when discussing current activities, which he clearly prefers to questions about the glory days with Fela.

He's particularly enthused about his role as the drummer in The Good, The Bad & The Queen, whose self-titled debut was widely hailed by rock critics as one of the best albums of 2007, and he rates Albarn as the most talented artist he's worked with since he left Kuti's band some 28 years ago .

"Damon's a genius," he says. "He's got so many ideas and it's something new all the time. It's a challenge because it's not easy keeping up with him. I'll do whatever he wants me to do. I could work with him forever. I've seen good composers before but he's something special. He's an inspiration."

They met after Albarn inserted the line "Tony Allen... really got me dancing" into the lyrics of Blur's 2000 single "Music is My Radar". Somebody played the song to the drummer and he invited Albarn to a gig in Paris to perform with his band. Blitzed, by his own admission, on a bottle of over-proof rum, Albarn couldn't find the beat, staggered across the stage and gave the drummer a bear hug. It was the start of a beautiful friendship. Albarn sung on Allen's 2002 album Home Cooking and the pair then took a trip to Lagos, where they worked with the producer Danger Mouse. Although none of the music from the Nigerian sessions ended up on the subsequent album, it was the beginnings of The Good, The Bad & The Queen.

Allen lets slip that the band commenced recording their second album at Albarn's studio in December. "We've had to take a break because we've all got other projects, but it's got the Hypnotic Bass Ensemble on it and it'll be very different from the first record," he says.

Born in Lagos in 1940, Allen began to play claves (sticks) in his teens with Dr Victor Olaiya's highlife band, the Cool Cats. When the drummer left, Allen took over his stool and went on to play with other bands emerging in Lagos around the time of independence, including Agu Norris and the Heatwaves, the Nigerian Messengers and the Melody Makers.

Combining influences that spanned traditional Yoruba rhythms, highlife and American jazz, particularly the work of drummers Max Roach and Art Blakey, he swiftly developed his own sound. "I knew I couldn't compete with the great American jazz drummers because they were already superstars," he recalls. "I wanted to do something like what they were doing but I knew I had to find my own sound.

"Then I read an article by Max Roach about the hi-hat. None of the African drummers used a hi-hat so I studied it and that became part of my sound."

The meeting that was to change his life came in 1964. Recently returned from four years studying music theory and trumpet at Trinity College in London, Fela Kuti was looking for a drummer for his jazz-highlife band, Koola Lobitos. After a successful audition, Kuti said to him: "How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?"

Their partnership was to last 26 years, and they created some of the most incendiary music to come out of Africa, hitting a purple patch that lasted through the Seventies when Kuti renamed the band The Africa '70 and developed a new, militant hybrid that blended African sounds with the heavy grooves of Brown and American soul and funk.

Brown's visit to Lagos in 1970 is often credited with changing the way African musicians played, but Allen disputes the chronology. "We'd already heard him and assimilated what he did by then," he insists. "None of the Nigerian musicians got to see James Brown when he came to Africa because he played only for the rich people in a five-star hotel. What really happened was that his musicians came to our club to see us every night after their show. People like Bootsy Collins were writing down my patterns. I didn't mind, it was flattering. But the truth is that James Brown's band learnt more from African musicians than African musicians learnt from Brown."

Allen ended up playing on more than 30 Fela Kuti albums, not just providing the back beat but acting as his band leader and co-conspirator. "Fela used to write out the parts for all the musicians in the band, but I was the only one who originated the music I played," he says proudly. "Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat," was Kuti's assessment many years later, although he wasn't always so generous in sharing the credit – a frustration that eventually led Allen to leave in 1980.

He's been disproving the maxim that drummers don't make good band leaders ever since, and after Kuti's death in 1997 assumed the mantle of the keeper of the flame of Afrobeat. Yet there's nothing retro about his recent solo recordings, which have shown a refreshing interest in keeping the music current. "If you want the music to stick around, you have to keep moving," he says. "The core is the rhythm – and the rhythm is Afrobeat. I'm collaborating with people whose music doesn't sound like mine, but Afrobeat is very adaptable. When I play with new people they say, 'How can we play along with this,' because the timing is strange to musicians who are used to playing in 4/4. People have to learn to feel the groove. Then we can start making music."

African Soul Rebels tour from 15 to 26 February (