From his roots in Nigeria to the future of jazz, and working alongside Fela Kuti...

Tony Allen is seated by the window of a fourth floor hotel restaurant, the London skyline spread out just a few inches from his shoulder. The Nigerian-born, Paris-based drummer is a figure of subtle contentment; completely at ease, he greets Clash with a smile, his knife and fork held lightly, in that loose, almost care-free, jazz fashion.

We’re here to discuss ‘The Source’, his most recent album but arguably his oldest. For the first time this legendary figure is able to truly address his jazz roots in full, and he’s doing it on one of the greatest jazz labels of all time – Blue Note. “I think it was Blue Note, really, that revealed the most jazz to me,” he recalls. “The first jazz events that I really followed were Blue Note, and that was how I discovered my idol Art Blakey. He played on Blue Note.”

“There are a series of jazz programmes that Blue Note had covered, so to work with them was my dream. And it came at a time when Blue Note was signing not only jazz but signing different artists from different angles of music. Which at that point I was looking at it like, oh, I would love to have a go with Blue Note! But it never happened. I think everything takes time and sometimes you just have to wait. It’s all coincidence, as we say.”

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Renowned for his role in Fela Kuti’s legendary afrobeat ensemble Africa 70, Tony Allen spent his youth playing in all manner of bands, seeking out his own sound in the process. Throughout this, though, lay a clear love of jazz, for its endless improvisation and it’s percussive energy. Picking up albums when he could, the drummer re-interpreted these influences in his own way, a continual process of very individual study.

“I was on my own, really. I was getting tired, getting bored,” he explains. “Before I met Fela, for instance, I was playing in different bands – started in one, moved into a different one. Maximum time I spent in a band – then – was one year, maximum. Just because it would come to the end of the year I would get bored, I had learned enough. I would be looking for something else, that would change the way I played.”

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I would be looking for something else...

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Groups were hired to largely follow the tastes and passions of the nightclub owners, and of the dancers themselves. Jazz was a key aspect of this, alongside the then-prevalent sound of highlife, as Tony Allen would blaze rhythmic fire long into the night. “Some bands would include both – they would play high-life and play jazz,” he says. “We played in nightclubs, so the owner of the club wants to hear all the music from the radio. He wants to hear it, he wants to hear the musicians play it. So that meant we were booked to play different things.”

“During that time I found I was always asking questions, about why these drummers play the way they do. And the way I started playing it, I was looking at it like: I’m not sure if I am playing it right yet! And why? It’s just because there was one particular instrument used that was not there! Which is the hi-hat. The hi-hat.”

“Before I had only seen it closed, and when I saw this hi-hat moving in and out – they play ‘chk chk chk’… I thought something was wrong. The instrument has a pedal, so you have to pedal it. With the pedal it’s just one leg. And you cannot ride a bicycle with just one leg!”

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I get bored. I can’t imagine myself playing the same beat night after night.

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Tony Allen’s approach is to continually look outwards, seeking fresh influences and new ideas; yet equally this seems to re-affirm his central idea, which is that rhythm is something innate to the music of West Africa, and his native Nigeria. “When I listen to Art Blakey… I didn’t know he had spent time in Africa. Later, I was reading about Art Blakey in a book, and he stayed in Africa – Nigeria, Ghana, and everywhere. It’s all there. So I was wrong! I was hearing the similarity of things in American drums, playing things that I already knew. This combination of us with this guy’s playing. I could see us in there. The way he was playing. It wasn’t like other drummers. That’s why I tried to follow up these ideas.”

“I never saw him drumming until later, but on the records he’s sounding like not one drummer to me. I had to ask myself: how many drummers are playing on this? Two, three drummers? But no. Only one guy. Art Blakey. He plays jazz, he plays standard, but standard jazz is more like talking, it’s like a language. That’s why I worked so hard on those ideas, because I just like creating patterns – I love creating patterns. Because I get bored. I can’t imagine myself playing the same beat night after night.”

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“I like to be myself,” he asserts. “I want to play myself, really. I just want to be myself. I work towards that, to not sound like any other person. They say, how do you achieve that? And I don’t know. But I just know that my achievement came from respecting my instrument. It’s like my baby, it’s a part of me.”

Throughout our conversation Tony Allen speaks slowly, clearly, almost as though he is schooling me; the tone rises and falls, but he never seems rushed. Excited, perhaps, but never hurried. “When you learn how to play drums, one way is to bash it – to kick the ass out of the drums. Understand? It’s that. And I don’t think it’s the right way, really,” he says with a sigh.

“It’s OK to be loud, but you have to teach yourself to be soft too. Dynamics is not taught. That’s why it can be rowdy sometimes, but even when the drummer is playing so loud you can’t hear anything. It’s too loud! So nothing is there. Why? It’s just because of the loudness. If you play the same thing but with dynamics, then you will hear it.”

“I want people to hear my drums, I want my drums to sound like a piano. You have to hear different things at the same time, like a chord. But if I have to use my energy then I would arrive at a different sound.”

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I just want to be myself. I work towards that, to not sound like any other person.

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It’s a lesson that is prevalent in every aspect of Tony Allen’s lengthy and vastly influential career – from those side-long explorations with Fela Kuti to his recent recordings with Sebastian Tellier and Damon Albarn. “In my own group – the guys who know me – what they want is tempo and dynamics, there’s no other way we can play. Tempo and dynamics. I don’t talk onstage but when I’m on, I start to count. I’ve laid out the tempo already, to be respected. Whatever you’re going to play, you play to that tempo.”

Known for the deeply physical grooves that emanate from his playing, Tony Allen’s decision to make a pure jazz album flips this on its head – he doesn’t envisage this as a nightclub experience, rather something for a conservatory, or theatre. “All I know about jazz is that most people who I know that listen to jazz sit down to listen – it’s a sit down audience, you know? Sitting down audience.”

“It’s too much information. You can’t dance to standard jazz. You can’t dance to it because it’s too much information. And that’s what it is for me. As a drummer, that’s what I try to reach to. Because I am passionate about that. To me, it doesn’t show me as an African drumming – I’m coming from the roots of drumming. I need to make music from where I’m coming from.”

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It’s not good to look back. It puts you in the wrong place musically.

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There are few sounds more indelibly linked to West African culture than those seminal Fela Kuti sides. Tony Allen’s astonishing skill deconstructed rock, funk, and jazz, effortlessly blending them with Nigerian artistry to create those huge, trance-like slabs of 20 minute rhythm.

“That’s how it’s supposed to be for the African audience. In the club,” he insists. “For instance, playing in Europe for me is just, like, not playing! It’s not enough. For instance, the maximum you could play here – maximum – I would say is probably two hours. That’s what they allow you to do. Unless you have your own club and can extend the opening times. We’d play six hours a night, four days of the week – with Fela. That’s what the people want. They want to be on the floor doing their thing. If you’re doing a three minute track it’s boring. Every time you stop it people have to go back, sit down, and then you start again. You put them in a trance for a while, then they feel like going to sit down, get a drink. But for us, it’s like we work less here.”

Working less is hardly something you could accuse Tony Allen of doing. Blessed with incredible energy, he is perpetually looking ahead, clearly relishing every aspect of the fluid jazz creativity that lies behind ‘The Source’. “I just try to not be standard,” he smiles. “Because it’s boring! I don’t listen to myself too much. With my own work, when it’s done, then it’s done. If you come to my house you have to ask me to spin any of my albums. It’s not good to look back. It puts you in the wrong place musically. I’m not going to spin anything of me to you – unless you ask for it!”

Often lauded as one of the finest drummers alive right now, Tony Allen is nevertheless aware of some of the praise that comes his way. “It’s not me saying it, though – it’s them!” he insists. “For me, personally, I am just doing my work, and I know there is no end to it. No end to exploring what is right in front of me. It’s endless.”

From the roots of drumming to its boundary-less future, his every answer seems bound by a certain ego-less sense of wisdom; the infinite zen of Tony Allen.

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'The Source' is out now on Blue Note.

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