A self-taught musician, Allen didn't begin playing drums until the age of 18 while working as a technician for a Nigerian radio station. Within nine months, he had embarked on a professional career as a drummer. Although Allen and Kuti had known each other since the early '60s when they performed on the Nigerian music circuit with different bands, they only began playing American-style jazz together in 1964. Before long, they shifted to an African-influenced style of highlife jazz, which they continued to play for five years.
Forming Africa 70 in 1969, Allen and Kuti reached out to an international audience. A few months later, while touring North America for the first time, Allen was introduced to the music of James Brown, Max Roach, and Art Blakey. Despite critical acclaim, the group faced numerous obstacles, including financial difficulties, racial discrimination, and political oppression. Arrested during the first of a long series of government-sponsored raids of Black townships in 1974, Allen spent three days in jail. The following year, he released his first album as a leader, Progress. After performing his last show with Kuti and Africa 70 at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1979, Allen continued to play with his group Lagos until immigrating to Europe in 1984. After temporarily living in London, he settled in France the following year and worked as a session drummer for such transplanted African musicians as Ray Lema and Manu DiBango, and released Never Expect Power Always (N.E.P.A.) in 1985.
Allen was largely inactive for the next decade, although he re-emerged in the late '90s with a string of singles, culminating in the release of Home Cooking in 2002. Reissues of his '70s solo albums started showing up around the same time, as well as Eager Hands and Restless Feet: The Best of Tony Allen, a summation of his post-Fela career. In 2004, a live album was released, and 2006 saw him return to his Afrobeat roots with Lagos No Shaking, which was recorded in the Nigerian city itself.
That same year, Allen co-founded the British alternative rock outfit the Good, the Bad the Queen alongside Paul Simonon (the Clash), Simon Tong (the Verve), and Damon Albarn (Blur) and released a well-received eponymous album under the moniker in 2007, followed in 2009 by an all-new collection of Afrobeat material called Secret Agent, as well as Inspiration Information, Vol. 4 with Jimi Tenor. He also guested on Zap Mama's full-lengths Supermoon and ReCreation.
In 2010, the Black Voices album was remastered and released in unedited session form under the title Black Voices Re-Visited. Allen further collaborated with Albarn and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea in the band Rocket Juice the Moon. They released a self-titled album in 2013. He returned to recording solo in 2014 with French trio the Jazz Bastards. The results, Film of Life, featured guest appearances by Albarn, American-born Nigerian singer Kuku, and the renowned vocal ensemble Adunni and Nefertiti. It was released by Jazz Village in October 2014 and landed in the Top Five of the World Music Albums chart.
After a tour, Allen resumed studio activity collaborating with others. His credits included playing with the Moritz von Oswald Trio on Sounding Lines, with Jimi Tenor and Nicole Willis on the club hit "All for You," and on the track "2nd Chance" from Cerrone's comeback album Red Lips. He also issued Nu Guinea with his electronics and percussion group the Tony Allen Experiments, and guested on the Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra's AHEO and Instituto's Violar albums. In May 2017, Allen appeared on Blue Note with the four-track EP A Tribute to Art Blakey the Jazz Messengers, featuring an international sextet and septet. That September, he followed up with full-length The Source, recorded in collaboration with saxophonist Yann Jankielewicz and featuring an appearance by Damon Albarn. He also found time to perform on Oumou Sangare's comeback album Mogoya. The Good, the Bad the Queen issued their sophomore outing, Merrie Land, in November 2018.
March 2020 saw the release of the collaborative album Rejoice on World Circuit. Having been friends since they were introduced by Kuti in the early '70s, Hugh Masekela and Allen shared many ideas about music. The pair were determined to cut an album together. When their touring schedules coincided in the U.K. in 2010, the moment finally presented itself and producer Nick Gold took the opportunity to record their encounter. The unfinished sessions, consisting of all-original compositions by the pair, lay archived until Masekela passed away in 2018. With renewed resolution, Allen and Gold, with the full blessing and participation of Masekela's estate, unearthed the original tapes and finished recording the album in summer 2019 at the same London studio where the original sessions had taken place, and a host of friends and admirers from London's new jazz world got together to complete the set, including Joe Armon-Jones (Ezra Collective), Tom Herbert (Acoustic Ladyland, the Invisible), Mutale Chashi (Kokoroko), and Steve Williamson. Sadly, it also proved to be one of Allen's last major projects; he died in Paris on April 30, 2020, following a heart attack. He was 79 years old.
To mark the first year of his passing, Blue Note released There Is No End in May 2021. Allen and producer Vincent Taeger had begun work on an album in 2019, finishing early tracking and all of the drums. From there, Taeger and co-producer Vincent Taurelle completed the record with a large cast of singers, rappers, and players, including Danny Brown, Sampa the Great, and Lava La Rue. Allen had also recorded a set of songs with singer/songwriter Joan as Police Woman and the Invisible's Dave Okumu over the course of one night in November 2019. Released in November 2021, The Solution Is Restless gives enduring proof of Allen's skills as a drummer and a collaborator. ~ Craig Harris, Rovi
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