The master of Afrobeat: 'Just tell everyone to get ready'

  • Article by: BRITT ROBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2011 - 9:59 AM

Coming to town for a hotly anticipated show, Tony Allen remains the fiercely proud force who melded African pop and American funk.

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Tony Allen has blended hip-hop and dub into the Afrobeat formula he helped create.

Photo: BENARD BENANT, Special to the Star Tribune

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Nigerian drummer Tony Allen will forever be known for the beguiling rhythmic undertow in Afrobeat, the musical genre he pioneered with the legendary Fela Kuti. Indeed, Fela himself proclaimed, "Without Tony Allen there would be no Afrobeat."

But when Allen and his band perform Saturday at Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, the set list won't include any of the music Allen and Fela created over the course of more than 30 albums in the 1970s.

"I never touch the Fela songs," he said by phone from New York City last week. "If I am a guest and someone plays a Fela song, I will play it -- they have a right to do that -- but I never try it, no."

Then he added: "But if I did play the Fela songs, I would be better at it than anybody."

That wellspring of pride and confidence is what compelled Allen to concoct the rhythmic template of Afrobeat: the busy pattern of the bass and snare drums, and the floating yet insistent beats that simultaneously seem to land square and yet expand the soundscape by holding back and surging forward in a split-second. It contains the lilt of Nigerian highlife music, the rubbery kinetics of American funk and the creative license of jazz. And it stems from Allen's desire to be noticed on his own terms.

"I wanted to be one outstanding drummer. And how do I do it? I have to find a way, to create something to make myself look special. It is all a mind game. I feel different vibes from different areas. I come from Africa but I am not just African. So I try to differentiate myself, because to still be learning is a mind game. I listen, because there are a lot of inspirations around."

To play the songs he made with Fela -- celebrated in a recent Broadway musical -- would mean both moving backward 30 or 40 years, and performing music associated with someone else. Allen, who turned 70 in August, has plenty of his own material to choose from, including songs from his 2010 album "Secret Agent" and two other studio records from the past decade. While keeping with the basic Afrobeat template he helped mint, he has incorporated elements of hip-hop and Jamaican dub. And, as Fela did, he unabashedly infuses his music with topical sentiments against repressive politicians in Africa and around the world. He spent a good portion of our interview bitterly complaining about the delays he invariably confronts in airports entering the United States, owing to a time back in 1969 when the authorities claim he was deported. (Allen says he, Fela and the rest of the band left voluntarily because of government harassment.)

The latest tour marks his second journey through North America in two years. Last year the purpose was primarily to promote "Secret Agent." This time, Allen promises "a different package that will be from my full repertoire" (except for the Fela tunes, of course).

Half of his eight-piece ensemble is from France, his adopted homeland for the past 26 years, including guitarist Claude Dibongue, who has a distinctive flair for finding his own groove in the swirling levitation of Afrobeat. The rest are Americans, including Amp Fiddler, a honey-toned keyboardist and vocalist from Detroit, who should be just right for the free-associative keyboard-drum exchanges on "Celebrate," a song from "Secret Agent."

One of the hallmarks of Fela's groups was the long, sinuous jam, mixing the innovative meander of the Grateful Dead with the calibrated funk of James Brown. Asked if he, too, was prone to extended songs, Allen replied, "It depends on how long the show is. If it is 90 minutes that is one thing, but over two hours it is another.

"Just tell everyone to get ready," he said. "If you come to the show, you will hear from me." One outstanding drummer.

  • TONY ALLEN

    With: Amp Fiddler.

    When: 8 p.m. Sat.

    Where: Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $30-$35. www.thecedar.org or 612-338-2674.

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