Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer and drummer for The Good, The Bad And The Queen
Tony Allen

The aspiring rock star’s indispensable guide to surviving a life in music, with advice from those who know best. This month, TONY ALLEN - the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer and drummer for Fela Kuti and The Good, The Bad And The Queen - passes on vital tenets that should see you alright...

Just Get Involved
There was a lot of young guys coming through as musicians, but I never started playing music direct in my life. I done other things first; I was a radio technician. That’s what I was doing before; club crawling every night, maybe three clubs in a night, just watching the bands. From there I started to get inspiration. I focused on the drums, but I had to go find somebody who had the drums. So I met somebody who showed me through a few lines on the drums. But I was working, I was just taking like exercise after work, and I did it for about two months and I was assed off because the guy never came again to show me anything. So I was pissed off, so I left, I stopped; I just did my job, you know, club crawling. It was about four years later something came to me that I think I’m going be a musician, and then I stopped this job. I was twenty, so I joined a band and I played sticks for about nine months. And the same band, when the drummer left, I went on the drums from that day.

Get Your Own Style
Everything started in my country, right from the Sixties when I started playing my drums, when I decided to start playing differently, not playing like the rest. All the drummers that were in the country, I played like them before, and then I tried to work out something for myself. I really wanted to enjoy playing the drums, not just the way everyone else was, so I had to work out a way, so this is how Fela (Kuti) met me. I was the type of person he was looking for; he’s a complicated writer, he needs somebody that has the mind, this complicated mind, for the beat.

Look To Your Idols For Inspiration
Well, I would say I’ve done all that I have done with Fela already, when I was still in Nigeria. I came here to start to explore on my own, you know, the way I would not stay in the same line for ever, you know. And then I think it really started to pick up from there. I done my homework from day one in my home town; I made sure I knew everything that I thought I could use. I listened to jazz, a lot of jazz, when I was young, and Art Blakey was my idol. When I heard him playing, first I said, ‘Is it one drummer playing or two or three drummers?’ It sounds like not one person, so that gave me this thought from day one that how come there is only one guy playing like that? So I thought I have to play like this guy too.

Stick To Your Guns
Everyone copied Art Blakey in my country, but I’m not an American - I didn’t want to stick myself on jazz, because there is no way I would beat an American to his jazz. You should be yourself; you have always got to start from somewhere. The fundamental side of everything, it’s good to start with that, and then you have to think for yourself. It might be difficult at first to establish something that nobody knows, but if you stick with it, just believe in it, as long as nobody else is doing it, stick it. After that people will come to you.

Keep Learning
After a lot of practice at first, things started to work together. Like riding hi-hats; all the drummers I saw in my life, when I started playing drums, the hi-hat’s always there, but it’s closed, you have your foot on it and they play it like that. I never saw it open before in my country. I saw something wrong there. I said, ‘Why should that thing have a pedal and it’s not riding?’, until one day I was playing like that with them; you know, it’s how you have to play it. One day I saw in Drumbeats magazine Max Roach teaching hi-hats, just nothing but hi-hats; he’s teaching it to the young American drummers that would play like him. So with me I would just look at him and say, ‘Oh yeah, something’s wrong’. That’s where I have to go back and start practising this thing, make it open now and make them work together. I was young, I was able to fight it fast. In the country already, all of the drummers that I knew, I used go and watch them play and they would come and watch me play in the band I was playing. When they come to see me now, when I start to use what I learnt, they ask me what I’m doing, what’s going on; they can’t understand anymore, because I fused something into something.

Do Not Be Difficult
I love to play with people with different ideas; it’s just their ideas that are coming out of them. I like to fuse it. I play with people, I play to what they have, I’m not gonna play what I want to give them. No, I play to what they have, I flow with them. You should be flexible; flexible with the magic of others. There is no end to this business - I am still learning.

Interview by Chris Cummins

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