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

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 (www.musicbeyondmainstream.co.uk)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor