Live Music + Gig Reviews

Tony Allen: A Retrospective @ Royal Festival Hall, London

13 November 2021

Tony Allen Retrospective

Tony Allen Retrospective (Photo: Emile Holba)

Tony Allen dancin’
Tony Allen dancin’
Tony Allen gets what a boy can do
Really got me dancin’

– Blur, ‘Music Is My Radar’


Having been mentioned on Blur’s Music Is My Radar, Nigerian Afrobeat originator Tony Allen got in touch with Damon Albarn, causing the two musicians to go on to form a mutually admiring working relationship across several projects. As The Good, The Bad & The Queen they joined with The Clash’s Paul Simonon and The Verve’s Simon Tong and released two albums. With Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Rocket Juice & The Moon was a one-album project in between. And through Albarn’s hyper-network of cross-cultural musicianship Africa Express, Allen would go on to work with Joan As Police Woman, The Invisible’s Dave Okumu and many others. With his pedigree in organising upscale collaborative performances and his personal connection, Albarn was the obvious choice to helm a celebratory show for Allen’s imminent 80th birthday. Alas, in April 2020 an abdominal aortic aneurysm intervened, and instead a sprawling retrospective celebrating Allen’s enormously influential career came to be.

It’s immediately evident that Allen’s drumming style touched musicians across both lands and generations, well beyond his celebrated years with Fela Kuti and Africa 70, and that this is far from entirely Albarn’s doing. Ezra Collective’s youthful drummer-leader Femi Koleoso, Gorillaz producer Remi Kabaka and Nigerian poet-novelist Ben Okri share top billing with a revolving cast from assorted musical periods of Allen’s life, from Afrobeat to jazz and hip hop, with Tom Excell of Nubiyan Twist and Onipa acting as musical director.

Fittingly the programme opens with a medley of big band works from Allen’s Kuti era, including Zombie. Sax and trumpets parp rhythmically on one side of the stage, with assorted keyboards, guitars, drums, percussion and mic stands scattered about beyond. At any one time there are something like 20 musicians joining play, and as they come and go, it feels less like a formal concert than a joyous and continuous jam session to which we’re all invited. Interview and video footage of Allen from across his half-century career is relayed across the backstage screen, anchoring the man to his music. Okri reads the words from his collaborative track Cosmosis over those instantly recognisable drums, and there are takes from Allen’s 1999 Black Voices album, not least Asiko, which has the house out of its seats and shimmying collectively about.

Tony Allen Retrospective

Tony Allen Retrospective: Joan As Police Woman and Damon Albarn (Photo: Emile Holba)

Inevitably, even in a set pushing three hours, there are gaps. Allen’s more recent techno forays with Jeff Mills are absent, and while the sublime Sébastien Tellier track La Ritournelle, one of the most accomplished pieces from the careers of both men, is played, it is with an unannounced Nitin Sawhney at a grand piano and Eska on vocal duties. We do get a taste of the posthumously released collaborative Joan As Police Woman / Dave Okumu album The Solution Is Restless, with Joan Wasser soulfully chilled at the piano on Get My Bearings and Geometry Of You, and Albarn contributing backing vocals.

In a notable non-music contribution, Koleoso holds court after the interval in engaging style to explain the comedic circumstances in which he first met his hero and how their subsequent friendship bloomed, describing him as “the most sweet and beautiful person. At some point you will hear a Tony Allen drumbeat, and everything’s ok.” There’s space too for The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s downtempo The Poison Tree, Allen’s Hugh Masekela collaboration Slow Bones, and Go Back, an Albarn collaboration from Allen’s 2014 album Film Of Life. In a touching gesture, Albarn offers up a bottle of whisky to Allen, wherever he may be, and takes a swig on his behalf. It was to be a birthday present.

Intended “to highlight the boundless possibilities of collaboration within modern music”, this poignant event felt like a passing of the baton as much as a celebration, and perhaps Allen would not have been displeased. To quote the man himself: “I play yours, you play mine. The music never ends.” With future generations taking their cues from a giant of his time and building on his legacy with their own creativity, it surely never will.

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