Master Class with Tony Allen

Drummer Tony Oladipo Allen is the architect of the Afrobeat rhythms made famous by Fela Kuti. Allen conducted a master class that gave insight into the roots of Afrobeat that included history, culture and drum technique.

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Allen learned and absorbed the traditional music he heard around him and when his interest turned to playing the drum kit, he studied Jazz and the great drummers of that tradition. He is a custodian of Yoruba cultural memory, innovator and icon for his art.

The creation and evolution of Afrobeat was similar to the dynamic that brought us jazz. Jazz was born and nurtured in New Orleans, an environment that had the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade with many cultures seeking to make a way for themselves in this bustling city. Africans from America, Haiti, Cuba and elsewhere rubbed shoulders with the French Creole, the English and Native Americans. The drums of Congo Square set the tone and it was from this soil that jazz came; appropriating pieces of expression and ideas from each other to create a new music.

Afrobeat was created in the coastal city of Lagos, Nigeria. The slave trade also played a major role in creating the background and climate that inspired the makers of a new rhythmic force. The end of slavery in the new world saw the emigration of descendants of slavery from Brazil, Cuba and other places in the Americas to West Africa, many going to Lagos, Nigeria. There were also emigrants from Sierra Leone, Liberia and England. Large numbers settled in the Campos Square area in Lagos which was founded by a Cuban emigrant.

The music from this mix of cultures reflected indigenous music like Highlife, Sakara and Agidigbo (JuJu music). Jazz and Funk would later be added to the mix. Africans from Brazil also brought with them Caretta carnival with some of its Portuguese influences that further diversified the cultural landscape.

Afrobeat emerged in the 1960’s and reached maturity in the 1970’s amid political and social unrest in Nigeria. Afrobeat gave voice to much discontent and became a vehicle to express grievances. The energy and vitality of the music was a driving force in capturing the imagination of masses of people.

The Afro beat lineage was distilled into a specific sound and way of expressing music. Allen shared an aspect of his playing that is fundamental to his creative process.

He explains that the concept of clave is essential to understanding how rhythms are created and used in different ways. Clave is a rhythmic pattern that is an organizing principle that gives continuity to a percussion performance over time and is found in blues, funk, Latin and Hip Hop. Rhythmic patterns can be created using logic that is denoted in time signatures and expressed in mathematical terms. Allen also demonstrated different clave patterns on the drum kit and showed how a variety of patterns affected the sound, feel and groove of a particular piece.

Tony Allen’s presentation gave a deeper understanding of his art and the role that history and culture plays in the creative process.