Tony Oladipo Allen was a musical giant. Years ago I wrote in a fairly glib statement that all modern dance music was down to James Brown and Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock. As sweeping as that seems I still stand by it, but it needs to be extended to include Tony Allen. I can’t write a detailed obituary for the legendary afrobeat drummer who sadly passed away on April 30th – I`d have to resort to stealing from Wikipedia and the learned words of others – but I know that the battery he brought to Fela Kuti`s Africa 70 changed popular music forever.
My musical education, at least initially, didn’t come from books and magazine articles. It came instead from going out dancing. It`s a little embarrassing to admit that I didn’t know who Fela Kuti was until Italy’s Kwanzaa Posse sampled him. But that’s the truth. For a long time the only afrobeat record I owned was a copy of the Black President compilation, which I`d found in London’s Soul Jazz – when the shop was on Ingrestre Place.
Later there were those box-sets on Barclay, that collected every Africa 70 side – one of which was put together by Brian Eno. By this time, I`d had my dancing curtailed, and was forced to resort to some reading. David Toop in The Wire – had asked himself the rhetorical question, “Which of these reissues did you really need?”, and his answer had been “all of them”, since each was a politically-charged news bulletin from Fela`s Kalakuta Republic – aimed straight at Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Mohammed, Olusegun Obasanjo`s corrupt heads.
I couldn’t afford the box-sets – so I did what I always do – cross-reference between the play-lists of the great and good – and cherry-picked classics. The jazz-dance of Roforofo Fight. The Loft-endorsed Shakara. The proto-broken house beat of Zombie – something that I think Larry Levan championed. Ashley Beedle edited Water No Get Enemy.
Eno has often stated how influential Africa 70`s Afrodisiac LP – the first to be widely available – was on his own rhythmic inventions – and his collaborations with David Byrne – on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts – and Talking Heads – stamping his ideas and ego onto Remain In Light.
Tony’s kinetic playing inspiring the tape-collaged ants-in-its-pants jive of both. The success of these two records has ensured that approximations of Allen’s afrobeat are everywhere. Musically by the latter half of the 20th Century he had impacted everything. The complex, simultaneously shuffling and tumbling counterpoint of juju, fuji, highlife, funk and jazz, that Tony created through the 1960s and `70s, the time spent with Fela, have become a benchmark, a touchstone, a tool, present in post-punk, post-post-punk and alternative pop. Firmly established as part of the sonic landscape, his drumming is in the 21st Century an unavoidable point of reference. A genre.
Two tunes of Tony Allen’s that have never left my DJ record bag are N.E.P.A. – for those open-air Amnesia `87 moments – and Moyege – for when a bass heavy Cafe Del Mar, Chocolate Milk & Brandy boogie is needed.
Other giants, musical pioneers have passed in this unprecedented period of pandemic and lockdown. I hadn’t posted any words previously, partly because circumstances are such that I couldn’t really process their loss – I was too busy trying to keep my family functioning to consider their legacies deeply. But I also thought that to “publish” – that’s what the WordPress button says – obit after obit, wouldn’t be good for morale. My own or anyone else`s. I felt that if the blog has a purpose right now then it`s to keep looking forward, to promote new music, and perhaps help create revenue for the friends who make it. But as the emergency measures continue and we’ve all settled into some kind of routine, it`s difficult not to mention these artists. Mark their passing with respect, thanks, and some comment on why, personally, these people were important. Why they mustn’t be forgotten. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I hadn’t noticed.
Hamilton Bohannon was another drummer, a band leader and arranger. He gave us the rare groove of Save Their Souls, and the irresistible Let`s Start The Dance. A genuinely crazy piece of disco – full of diva screams and breakdowns – recorded in `78 and revived during the Second Summer Of Love.
Hamilton`s Disco Stomp famously inspired Johnny Marr to write the music for The Smiths` angst anthem, How Soon Is Now? In much the same way the Northern Soul of Nolan Porter`s Keep On Keeping On had formed the backbone of Joy Division Interzone.
As Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, or D.A.F. – with Robert Görl – José Gabriel “Gabi” Delgado López tailored the template for industrial`s “metal dance” – Electronic Body Music – with tracks like 1980`s Kebabträume, and `81`s Der Mussolini. Their more pop sides, such as Brothers and The Gun, were adopted by Ibiza`s belearic beat makers, and Belgium’s nascent new beat scene. 86`s 1st Step To Heaven is an eastern-tinged, proto-house precursor.
Cameroonian saxophonist and vibesman, Emmanuel N’Djoké “Manu” Dibango`s 1972 tune, Soul Makossa, helped to birth the 12” promo – when it was reissued as one four years later – I think at the request of David Mancuso. This reissue was also key in the formation of the DJ record pools which were instrumental in the development of New York`s nightlife.
Dibango`s mid-80s collaborations with Bill Laswell – plus Sly Dunbar, Herbie Hancock, Robbie Shakespeare, and Bernie Worrell – were groundbreaking fusions of technology and Duala tradition. Everything on 1985`s Electric Africa is essential.
Then there`s Bill Withers. A singer-songwriter who famously quit the business the minute he got tired of its bullshit. His compositions have been covered countless times. Personally, I have more than a few funky takes of Use Me, and reggae remakes of Ain`t No Sunshine.
Of Bill`s own recordings I don’t own so much. That said there`s the Ben Liebrand remix of Harlem – which was a hit in Ibiza during the summer of 1989.
There`s his sleazy cosmic cover-up, You`ve Got The Stuff – which DJ Harvey and Gerry Rooney edited for Black Cock – and his mind-blowing Live At Carnegie Hall. A seminal double LP set that I only discovered once Derrick Carter had deconstructed Bill`s touching rap from Grandmas Hands. Both Bill and Derrick describing their “churches” in terms of family, and warmly reaffirming gospel as a celebration of tambourines and triangles and big old bass drums.