mon 22/07/2024

Tony Allen, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Tony Allen, Barbican

Tony Allen, Barbican

Fela Kuti’s drummer provides three hours of high-protein Afrobeat

Brian Eno’s favourite drummer knows that polyrhythms not bombast gets you noticed

Happy Birthday, Tony! Last night the great Nigerian musician celebrated the fact that he has spent 70 years on the planet, with 52 of those years exploring – as no other drummer has explored – the humble kit drum (or drum kit if you prefer). This standard arrangement of bass drum, snare drum, toms, cymbals and percussion has been the engine behind most popular music for only a couple of decades longer than Tony himself has been bashing away at the things for.

A review of a concert which involved some 30 musicians and singers can't possibly be done justice, so I will stick to just mentioning some personal highlights. Things got off to a fairly leisurely start with the almost calypso-like “Secret Agent” from Allen's recent solo album of the same name. Guest percussionist Lekan Babalola had a percussion rig that looked bigger than Allen’s drum kit. But this effectively took the pressure off Allen, allowing him to shuffle and roll his way through the set, holding his sticks loosely so the snare rattled rather than exploded, and the ride cymbal was kissed rather than bashed.

The first highlight of the show came six or so numbers in, when the tall, lithe Wunmi snaked onto the stage for an edgy, angular shot at “Upside Down” (not the Diana Ross song, but a Fela gem from 1976). Wunmi was perhaps one of the least known of Allen’s guests, which is a shame given that when her debut album ALA (African Living Abroad) came out in 2007 it was as fine a mix of soul, funk and Afrobeat as I’ve heard in a long time. Wunmi somehow managed to do the most physically demanding dancing in the highest of platform shoes, while simultaneously punching out the socially conscious lyrics of the song with as much power and feeling as Sandra Akanke Isidore put into the original.

The cheery “Solo 1-3” from Allen’s timeless album Home Cooking ended up being an opportunity for Allen to solo. Now, I’m no more a fan of the drum solo than the next music lover. Let’s face it, only other drummers like to watch drummers thrashing those skins with tedious click-track precision while relishing the spray of sweat they shake from their heads every few seconds. But needless to say, an Allen solo is something else altogether. Rather than being a flash display of technique, stamina and sheer skull-crushing hitting power, the Allen solo is just more playing, more rolling with the polyrhythms, and more putting the swing back into Afrobeat - while the rest of the band just quieten down for a few bars. Nice.

The next revelation was South Africa’s Thandiswa. Resplendent in purple, her unique, powerful voice effortlessly leapt octaves; operatic one moment, boisterously Bessie Smith-like the next. But the person most of the audience seemed to be waiting for was Seun Kuti. In tight mustard-yellow shirt and matching flares he looked every inch his father’s son. And he wasted no time in leading the ever-expanding band on the two final Fela Kuti classics of the evening, “Suffering and Smiling” and “Colonial Mentality”. This wasn’t one of those Barbican evenings when the audience seemed to be waiting for permission to dance, and only end up getting to their feet for the last 10 minutes. Halfway through the set, the majority were already up and grooving, and remained so for the rest of the three-hour show.

Finally, a quick word about Keziah Jones. For some reason we got treated to two solo, guitar-accompanied songs from him in the middle of the concert, which for me rather disrupted the atmosphere and flow of the event. Keziah is a musician of great charisma and talent. In fact I would go as far as to say he’s a rock star in waiting. It’s just that he hasn’t written the right song yet to enlighten the rest of the world to this fact. But perhaps he would have won over more people if he'd performed a short set before the main concert rather than in the middle of it. But this was a small glitch in an otherwise intense and intensely enjoyable evening of Afrobeat at its most fluid and musical.

Below is a short film about Tony Allen's Secret Agent album:


Nice review and I completely agree with what you said about Keziah Jones. Allegedly, he's really big in France but, on the evidence of the songs he performed last night, I'm still unsure why. Great guitar technique, though. And why the glaring omission of the two song set by Cheikh Lo? Surely, that was first of two solo set highlights (Thandiswa Mazwai being the second)?

I quite agree it came together when Wunmi came on. Not necessarilly cause of her (tho she wasn't bad), but because that was the moment the whole thing hit its stride with that fantastic 7 piece brass section. You didn't say much about the brass, which was fantastic both ensemble and solos. Could actually have been even better, given the talents on display, but i daresay they hadn't had much time to rehearse.

I’m just not a huge Cheikh Lo fan, Robert. It’s as simple as that. I did state at the beginning of the review that given the space restrictions - and the large number of musicians involved - this would be a personal highlights rather than a definitive critical assessment.

A real treat to see so many high calibre musicians on one stage giving it the big one. i haveto say the horn section where phenomenal as these are often the unsung heroes of bigh outfit like this. Keziah was fine but just didn't fit into the dynamics of the set. Great value for money considering the size and quality of the personnel flown for just 2 gigs in England. So much spontineity, virtuosity and joy. Even a miserable old git like me had to have boogie. My mental image of Tony was wildly flaying limbs on a extensive kit - INCORRECT - straight back, relaxed economy of movement - a man at ease with his intrument. Refreshing and the antithesis of western rock (which I also love).

PS - have to disagree at the suggestion the performance would have been better with more reharsal time. This is spontaneous afro beat not Beethoven.

ok, the story about Keziah is the he had a worlwide hit with Rythm is Love decades ago....contrary to UK label....his record company kept on supporting him and allowed him to be "an artist" as opposed to a product.....hence, all his albums sells very well and he is constantly touring the world..its just the UK who is missing out really! @Funktster...real talk!

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