“Without [drummer] Tony Allen,” Fela Anikulapo Kuti once said, “there would be no Afrobeat.” For countless fans of South African jazz, the same is true about that genre for trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who died almost exactly two years ago.
Late last week the World Circuit label, with the approval of the Masekela estate, announced the March 20 release of an album, Rejoice (https://shop.worldcircuit.co.uk/products/tony-allen-and-hugh-masekela-rejoice-lp ) enshrining a unique 2010 London session when the two – who had known one another professionally for four decades – worked together in a London studio on a set of eight original compositions, described by Allen as a “sort of South African-Nigerian-swing-jazz stew”.
The plan had been to expand the duo’s music with instrumental overdubs at a later date and they were archived awaiting that time, Masekela’s health declined, and in 2018 he died. Allen and producer Nick Gold picked up the project again last year, adding an ensemble comprising bassists Tom Herbert and Mutale Chashi, keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones (whom South Africans saw at CTIJF 2019), and reedman Steve Williamson.
The mutual admiration between Masekela and Fela since their first meeting in the 1970s is well documented, as is Masekela’s interest in West African sounds. Fela often credited Masekela as an influence; Masekela recorded in his autobiography Still Grazin’ https://www.amazon.com/Still-Grazing-Musical-Journey-Masekela/dp/0609609572 how, when playing with Fela and Africa ‘70 at the musician’s legendary Lagos base, the Shrine, “the textures were just too beautiful; I couldn’t wait for the next solo.”
In subsequent performances throughout the trumpeter’s career, he would often preface his performance of the Nigerian’s satirical Lady with a tribute: “This one’s for Fela.” They bonded at a time when both young men were leading wild lives. But what united them on a much deeper level was their shared and passionate concern for social justice and African musical authenticity.
Tony Oladipo Allen had been a young but well admired Lagos circuit musician, earning his bread as a radio engineer and working hard with his own and other pop and highlife bands until he was recruited in 1968 by Fela for his first band, Koola Lobitos https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbSylZ52330 , which transformed into Africa ’70 after Fela’s first US tour. He stayed with the outfit for just over a decade, making close to 40 albums including three as leader, and only quitting in 1979 after one too many disputes about Fela’s regular refusals to pay his musicians.
What Fela heard in the young Tony Allen, and what made his playing unique then and now, was a combination of intricate complexity, married to an unprecedented lightness of touch.
Bassist Meshell Ndegeocello told Rolling Stone https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/how-fela-kuti-drummer-tony-allen-rediscovered-his-jazz-roots-113699/ :“I was accustomed to a hard and rigid sort of drive in the drums. Hearing Tony Allen really opened my mind up to fluidity and the understanding of agility within the pulse.”
The lightness, Allen explained, was reinforced by something he’d learned in the States: practising with his sticks on pillows to reinforce the bounce. Allen is a literally polyrhythmic drummer, in that each of his four limbs contributes something different to his tapestry of sound. That comes from an earlier time when, listening avidly to his father’s juju and highlife records and to Art Blakey, Max Roach and legendary fellow-countryman Guy Warren, he realised something was missing from the run-of-the mill highlife he was hearing; something he did hear in jazz.
“Watching drummers playing in my country,” he told The Wire’s Francis Gooding https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/interviews/francis-gooding-speaks-to-tony-allen , “I knew that something was wrong somewhere. Why is it that they don’t use their hi-hats? It’s there, it’s always there, but its closed, they don’t use it – well, they used it, but that thing has a pedal, you know? I felt that this thing should be like riding a bicycle – you have good legs, you have pedals, you need to put [your feet] on both pedals to make you move. You can’t start riding a bicycle with one leg, when you have two legs, and the other pedal is there.
“So, it was that, and then I had to find a way of playing my drums, playing highlife, like everybody, but – I had read this hi-hat teaching from Max Roach, and I said, yes, I know this thing is supposed to be used. So I tried to adapt it. I had to practise, to adapt this movement of the hi-hat plus what we were doing before, and that changed my movement, my way of playing, directly, you know? Every drummer in the country at that time… when I was playing in the local highlife band, they would come to watch, asking me, ‘What [are you] doing? What is that?’ Just because I had added hi-hats to the sound. It made a big difference for the other drummers, because they never did it, until I tried it.”
When Allen composes, he starts with the drum line: everything springs from that. But for contemporary highlife imitators, especially in the West, “This afrobeat everyone tries to do, they write the basslines and the horns … but what about the drums? The drummer comes and doesn’t know what to play, because that is the bit with the discipline. He will play what he knows, which doesn’t fit the music, ” he says. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/aug/05/tony-allen-fela-was-right-but-i-detest-singing-militant
Allen has been consistent in his interviews about never going back in his music; moving on rather than revisiting the past. Afrobeat’s done; he’s explored classic jazz in his Tribute to Art Blakey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_t_wPAA5pdE, and other genres in work with collaborators as diverse as Damon Albarn, Zap Mama, Ernest Ranglin, and a fair number of dancefloor DJs.
But he has been more than happy to go back a full ten years to revisit that session with Masekela, because of the huge respect and affection he has for the trumpeter. You can hear why when you listen to the advance track from Rejoice out now, We’ve Landed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMOJg16oHdI
As he grew older and shook off the distractions of that sometimes reckless earlier life, Masekela simply got better and better as a player (he was always a compelling performer). Irrespective of what genre label his work carried, the technique and intelligence he applied to a tune soared. Duo sessions provided real space for that to shine, so you can hear it, for example, in his magisterial 2012 Friends with pianist Larry Willis. And you can hear it, beautifully, on We’ve Landed too. It’s going to be a long, hard wait for March 20 and the rest of the music.
- Read more about Tony Allen’s life in his autobiography https://www.amazon.com/Tony-Allen-Autobiography-Drummer-Afrobeat/dp/0822355914 , and learn more about his drum technique in this masterclass with another player we know here, UK drummer Moses Boyd https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNru-AhcBwo