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
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot