Tony Allen - There Is No End (Blue Note, 2021)
In one last display of his desire to accommodate not just other musicians but his own voice, Allen's final album is a brilliantly delivered whirlwind of gorgeous hip hop leaning beats overdubbed by some of the finest rappers in the contemporary scene.
There have been a number of seismic shifts throughout music's history, where individuals, groups or scenes have forever altered the course of music's complex tapestry, and there have been even fewer instances where this has been achieved both as an individual and by engaging frequently with collaborators. Great records might stand alone or in a cluster, individual performances perhaps stick out in certain generations minds, but when musicians are able to offer up their god given services within numerous musical settings, then it helps to develop a trajectory that over time becomes beloved by listeners the world over. Approaching music as a collaborative process is as old as time itself, with many musicians feeling the need to add a sense of dynamism into the crafting process via invitation of players who add alternative dexterities into the mix, alongside helping to finish up conceptual ideas, finalise arrangements and so on. In the 20th century, this notion became much more frequent, with many choosing to add depth to their records by employing certain musicians to come add that little bit extra into proceedings, with even session players becoming highly requested due to what they could potentially bring to the table. Some of these collaborative efforts didn't start from studio sessions but occurred much earlier, where like minded individuals met up, got on, and conjured up ideas of how they might work together, and thus the artform of collaboration became a well versed and usually very successful tradition in music making. Some of these records would become fondly remembered and highly praised, with the music found within sharing a mixture of differing mindsets that shared a unique bond through the music they made together, the results often a delicate melting pot of sounds and influences. Some of these collaborations would last a lifetime, and consisted of many differing relationships, often between musicians with very differing backgrounds who just so happened to find the space in their own playing to accommodate a transposing genre, with this far reaching approach always led to groundbreaking sonics that pushed forward the boundaries of music to new heights. In some instances, these collaborations became incredibly diverse, with artists developing a plethora of works that tuned into the many morphologies that occurred frequently during the 20th century, with their playing style and open mindset affording all the creative and physical space needed to craft some very memorable music indeed. These careers highlight to us the power of pairing innovative talent with a scope for working with others, with these players combining their own significant works with time given over to other audial scenarios that would emphasise creativeness, deep thinking and expertly carried out instrumentalism. When these ideals remain at the forefront of the mind, then only one result can be achieved - phenomenal music, and as was the case for a select few throughout their lifetimes, the continual pursuit of innovation, passion and musical essence. To reach out across the spectrum and incorporate so many differing kinds of styles and influences is always the sign of a flexible and intuitive musician, one that moves with the flows that bind rhythms and mood together into a very special blend indeed, and one that keeps on the look out feverishly for new sights and sounds to be emerged into the continued evolution. As much as this is a collaborative thing as it is a personal thing, this is what separates the greats from the legends, the names who will be whispered for time infinitum, their achievements spoken about with reverence and passion for generations to come, and not just within a single circle of music lovers but within countless.
“I want people to hear my drums, I want my drums to sound like a piano.
Some artists feel like they were born to do great things with their careers, and with the late drummer Tony Allen, it feels like his career was only filled with great things, but this was no mere accident, instead a reflection of his god like drumming ability, his willingness to accommodate new styles and blends, and perhaps most importantly, his life long affinity with innovation. Born in Lagos in 1940, Allen would start drumming at the age of 18 whilst being employed as a technician at a local radio station, and just 9 months later he embarked on a new career trajectory as a professional musician, this remarkable transition made even more so considering that Allen was self-taught. Around this time, Allen was listening to a blend of music styles, such as the traditional Nigerian genre Jùjú, American Jazz and the rapidly popular Highlife style that emerged from Nigeria and Ghana. Allen worked feverishly to develop his own style of drumming, with intense study sessions spent investigating the styles of American Jazz drumming icons Art Blakely (Allen's idol) and Max Roach, alongside influential Ghanian drummer Guy Warren, who combined Ghanian tribal rhythms with Bop styles. In the early 60s, Allen met Fela Kuti, which would be the beginning of a 15 year association that would oversee a musical revolution within Nigeria and the rest of the world. The style that the duo and their group, Africa 70, played was characterised as Highlife Jazz, and after a educational yet difficult trip to the USA, Allen took up the role of creative director in the band, with his unique style of drumming complimenting the equally adventurous meanderings of Kuti, with the resulting sound something to behold. Blending a new militant African sound with Soul, Jazz, Highlife and the polyrhythmic grooves of Yoruba, this style would become known as Afrobeat, a deeply rich sound that relied on expert musicianship and mastery in order to pull off, and Allen was the kind of fluid musician in which to achieve the genre's goals. Allen would record over 30 albums with Kuti as a member of Africa' 70, a crazy achievement considering the 9 years between the band's debut and Allen leaving the group in 1979; but when there's a cause, a level of intense innovation and a musical drive that bordered on the extreme, then only one of the greatest and most influential discographies of all time will begin to emerge. As originators of the genre, you can only imagine that some of the best Afrobeat records ever made flowed from the finger tips of Kuti and Allen, with their total control over their own creative endeavours ensuring that the genre had the widest possible foundation in which for others to feel inspired from, and oh boy did the genre explode in popularity within the 1970s. Audiences were captivated by Kuti's energetic vocal performances and Allen's captivating and impeccably intricate drumming patterns, with Allen given a lot of freedom when recording to conjure up rhythms that he felt would suit the compositions being presented (he was the only member of the band whom Kuti didn't write parts for). The music was incredibly dense, poly rhythmic and lively, combining a plethora of stylistic points into one morphology, with emphatic horn arrangements cutting through slick guitar riffs and delicious bass lines, all of which floated above Allen's mesmerising mixture of bombastic rhythms and succulent fills. There's plenty of records to pick from during Allen's time with Africa 70, with our favourites including the excellent debut LP, 'Fela Fela Fela', that arrived in 1970; the hypnotic blend of tones that persist on the 'Shakara' record, which arrived in 1971; the beautifully executed feel of the 'Afrodisiac' album, which supposedly inspired a certain young David Byrne and the direction of his band Talking heads, with this album arriving in 1974; the deeply intoxicating display of musicianship and vision that abounds from the revered 'Confusion' record, that landed in 1974; the iconic 'Expensive Shit' record, that was for many younger heads an introduction into the wonderful world of Afrobeat, which arrived in 1975; the feel and flow of the 'Zombie' record, perhaps one of Africa 70's most enduring compositions, which was released in 1977; the beautiful driving feel of the 'Progress' record, which features some wonderful horns and key work, which was also released in 1977; the uptempo magic found within the 'Opposite People' record, that landed also in 1977; the sharp intakes and precise brilliance of the 'Shuffering and Shmiling' record, which was released in 1978; and finally, the meandering excellence of the 'No Accommodation' record, which arrived in 1979. The legacy that Kuti and Allen cemented will be unbreakable for millennium, with their pioneering blend of Jazz fuelled Afrocentric rhythms and melodies still to this day sounding astonishing to the senses, it's core content something to behold, all helmed by two masterminds who followed their inner innovations to deliver up to the world something truly extraordinary.
I never stop. I never stop experimenting. I don’t like repeating myself too much. I need to move forward.
Perhaps this quote could be used to rightly sum up what occurred post 1979 in Allen's incredible journey. After becoming disillusioned with the direction of Africa 70, in 1979 he played his last gig with the group in Berlin, which would usher in the next phase of his career as a band leader and iconic collaborator. Allen would release fairly sparsely over the next couple of decades, with seminal records coming out during this time including 1979's brilliant 'No Discrimination', which was released with the Afro Messengers, and perhaps a key indicator of his natural ability to fit his style into new contexts, the 1984 record 'N.E.P.A (Never Expect Power Always), which was released alongside Afrobeat 2000. As the name of the group suggests, this was the iconic genre placed within a futuristic space, with a lot of time spent on the scale of the acoustics that really emphasised the individuality of the various percussive elements, the focus on Allen's drumming prowess helping to craft a deep scope to proceedings. 1999's 'Black Voices' record, a simmering blend of Afrobeat guitar work and spacious future jazz blemishes, would ignite a new creative spark within Allen that would see the second great phase of productivity within his work, with an array of solo works, duo projects and group pieces all coming to light during this period. Like Allen said, his need to constantly explore and experiment led to some very interesting collaborations indeed, such as the Future Jazz leaning Pysco On Da Bus project, the neverendingly impressive Rocket Juice and the Moon, and the intriguing alternative outfit The Good, The Bad and The Queen, all of which have records found within their discographies worth listening too. Allen would even embrace electronic music in it's many shapes and forms, as he became a member of the Morwitz Von Oswald Trio and recorded beautiful records alongside House legend Theo Parrish and Techno titan Jeff Mills, of which their record 'Tomorrow Comes The Harvest' is one of this writer's favourite ever records. A number of his solo EPs on Honest Jon's, such as 'Ole' and 'Kilode', are all well worth your time checking out, along with the 2017 record 'The Source' and 2018's joint effort with Jimi Tenor, 'What Goes Up'.
On reflection, Allen's discography is a hefty one, and no matter where you look there is excitement to feed upon and majesty to dwell deep within, and at the core of it all is his divine enthusiasm for playing the drums. Allen never needed to stray far from his early playing style as it simply needed nothing added to it - it simply required other genres to gravitate towards his multi-faceted and intricately delivered drumming patterns, and this would occur frequently over the course of his celebrated career. His percussive style fused the cornerstones of Jazz's freedom and Highlife's expressive nature in the most organic of ways, a myriad of impressions and feels that could breathe life to any kind of composition you could think of. The fluidity that remained a key aspect of Allen's style meant that the music which swirled around it found an island in which to grow, forever taking the plunge when needed into a glittering sea of rhythm that always switched gears, tempo and feel at just the right moments. As Jeff Mills would reveal in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2018, Allen's style was informed not only by some of the aforementioned artists and genres but by the people of Lagos, where it was common for people to speak 6 languages, and his dynamic playing style reflected the 'social pattern' of the city. Collaborators have always spoken of Allen with such reverence, and it's no surprise that his techniques influenced countless musicians the world over, and with his consistent need to continue exploring, his sound always remained at the forefront, peering through from Afrobeat's origins and very much into the 21st century and beyond. Upon his passing last year, so many of contemporary music's most important figures paid tribute to a man who carved out a career many could merely dream of, one forged on a determination to be different, to stand out, and to play like you meant to innovate every single time.
I lay out this universe in which dreams can come forth.
And now we arrive at Allen's final creative endeavour that he embarked upon before his passing, the aptly named 'There is No End'. For this project, Allen was keen to work alongside a collection of hip hop artists, as to help provide a series of healing voices in a divisive world, and in crafting the beats Allen listened to a number of hip hop recordings and jammed along to them, creating his own take on the rhythms he was listening to. The results were intended by Allen to be a collection of open canvas for the rappers to do bars over, with each set of drums differing in tone and intensity to help reflect the plethora of vocal styles and flows on show. Allen would unfortunately never get a chance to hear the finished product, but the results are extraordinary, with every track dripping in a uniqueness that reflects Allen's intrinsic approach to crafting percussive sequences. The vocal performances are all in a different class, held up high by a series of drum laden soundscapes that flow as intuitively and impressively as ever, bound together by Allen's masterful touch and willingness to provide a foundation for others to create and be themselves. It's an album like no other, and remains a fitting send off to a titan who's contributions to music will forever be remembered, and on that note, lets take a dive into this wonderful record....
Up first comes 'Praeludium', a brief interlude introduction of a rising whoosh like sweep interwoven with Tony's voice reaching out across the plain, his words whispering that he was 'born into rhythms....there is no end, music doesn't have an end', and this sentiment pretty much sums up the larger consciousness of the man himself and the vibes that are going to flow out of this record for the next few tracks. 'Stumbling Down' comes soon after, which features MC Sampa the Great on vocal duties. The sonics from the intro are retained here in the form of gently swelling bass notes, the placement of which slot snuggly within Allen's spacious rhythm, with the stage set for Sampa to slide in and deliver her words on top with a peerless flow that rides the kicks with a wave like feel that works to really bind us into the track. The percussive feel evolves over time to include further sequences that helps the momentum to lead into the chorus that sees high octane lyrics being delivered, with the instrumentals and vocals working with a wonderful synergy. The switches between the verses and the choruses are so effective, with the underbelly of the track rising to match the intensity of the lyrics, with the ebbs and flows pulled off impeccably. Wonderful stuff. Up next comes 'Crushed Grapes', which features Lord Jah-Monte Ogban on vocal duties, and this one starts off with a mix of claps and fast paced sequences to get us going. It's a suitably open space in which for the vocals to slide into the picture, with the chord sequence emerging to add scale as Lord Jah begins his narrative as the delightfully soft drumming line comes into the picture. The chorus provides further conceptual scope, with the rhythm maintaining an enormous amount of space for further melodic features to come into view, such as the wonderful rhodes line on the left and the dreamy guitar through the back middle, all bound by Lord Jah's driving and rhythmically on point flow. The build up is subtle and ever present, and around the 2 minute mark we see the drums come full circle, and it's a wonderful moment indeed as the chopped up becomes the full. That loop could go on forever. Up next comes 'Tres Magnifique', which features Tsunami on vocals, and this one begins with the cascading distant pianos underneath the spoken words to get us going. The track quickly evolves as the drums and intricate key work arrives into the mix, as Tsunami's softly spoken flow exudes class in the top end of the frequencies, the momentum something to behold. Rather than with the previous tracks, the drums are pretty consistent in terms of presence on this one, with less breakups of the vocals that means the piece reads as a continuous line of inquiry, but the manner in which the vocals come across is wonderfully done and does much to carry our engagement throughout. Very deep, this one. Up next comes 'Mau Mau', which features Nah Eeto on vocal duties, and this one begins with a intriguing rhythmic outlay to get us started. The rising thud of the bass then joins into the flow, and before long the drums arrive to complete the foundation of the rhythm, and this is when we get introduced to Eeto's expertly delivered flow. Her voice waivers right above the beat, tonally so pleasing to listen to as the words melt across the top end with devastating effectiveness, the overall package of sound working it's magic on us with each passing second. The breakdown leads into a sequence where we are left with the vocal meanderings and drum loops for company, with these two elements acting just as superbly by themselves as they do with the accompanying bass and other instrumental sections, with the complete ensemble coming back into view soon after as a final reminder of this track's substance and presence. Brilliant!
'Coonta Kinte' arrives next, with Zelooperz on vocal duties for this one, and this one begins with an enriching instrumental loop to get us going. The rising guitar riff does it's magic on the left as swirling key bits operate on the right, as serving drumming patterns mix it up in the middle, with the main chorus like vocals taking charge through the middle, repeating 'anybody come for me, there ain't no justice or no piece', a sombre and powerful reminder of recent activism that has arisen around the world in recent months. The instrumentals then sweep upwards and shift into a very compelling rhythmic movement, with Zelooperz' vocals riding the crest of the loop high as we become entranced with the groove of it all. The second verse sees the drums drop out to emphasise certain words being spoken in the flow, with the switches into the choruses pulled off with a real sense of intent. There's still time to explore the parameters of possibility in this track, with switches up occurring across the board as we swerve from differing melodic segments with powerful purpose, our senses delighted by the gorgeous keys and drums, everything really. Up next comes 'Rich Black', which features Koreatown Oddity on vocal, and this one starts off with the drums in full effect. The depth and textural feel of the percussive outlay is something we could listen to for days on end, with it's presence quickly joined by the deep expansive bass, delicate flute like sample and guitar riff, and of course the flow of Oddity, which occupies the top end of the track with a feverish meandering style that speaks with clarity and meaning. The ensemble is a tour de force, with the drums hitting so hard underneath and the narrative being displayed on top highly engrossing, with the switch into the verse seeing some beautiful singing going on to add flavour into the instrumentals, with the second verse seeing more of the same coming our way. At the end, the track breaks it down ever so slightly to reveal a enriching percussive mix that expands then contracts to tighten the groove, with all manner of intricate sequences making their way into the fold, with the climax occurring as the chorus swings back into view with synths thrown into the mix to keep the momentum rising higher and higher. Amazing stuff. 'One Inna Million' comes next, which features the vocal stylings of Lava La Rue, and this one begins with the free and easy drumming patterns to get things going. The flow is suitably cavernous and cascading, the kicks and fills working in tandem to craft a perpetual sense of momentum, and before long their presence is joined by a simple yet highly effective bass line and the vocals, which as ever are so perfectly suited to the flow underneath. La Rue places her words at all the right moments, the emphasises swinging between the bass to then riding along the crest of rhythm, with this dynamism providing a wonderful switch up for when the chorus slides into view, where a melodic swell causes the song to slow ever so slightly to focus it's frequencies on a certain few layers. The second verse sees La Rue deliver her words in a much more punchy fashion, the words flowing at a much more emphatic pace as to create that bridge into the second verse, which sees the gorgeous melodies soar above Allen's entrancing drumming patterns. This one has you seeing stars, truly mesmerising stuff.
'Gang On Holiday' arrives next, which features Jeremiah Jae on vocal duties this time, and the vibe takes a instantly more dubby and deep vibe. The drums filter through a series of fuzzy bass tones, with Jae's words placed in the middle of the bass line frequencies, with the resulting ensemble a highly engaging one, our minds moving between the layers to feel the energy resonating from the core. The track takes a dive to reveal it's inner most workings, which sees the track then build itself up to focus a bit more on the drums and vocal lines, which switch between differing applications in terms of texture and presence. The track keeps flowing on, with numerous elements shifting in and out of time, the drums very much acting as a anchor for everything to flow around, Jae's vocal work in particular a notable highlight as he serves within the space with grace and purpose. This is how you work a 3 minute track to it's max, excellent stuff. Up next comes 'Deer In Headlights', which features Danny Brown on vocals, and this one starts with the expanse to get us going. Brown's iconic voice is heard speaking to us from the left of the pan, as rising string like chords and rhythmic touches feel out the undercurrent, and like that we arrive into the main flow of proceedings, with Allen's drums working in tandem with the bass to craft a superb sense of progression, as Brown's voice lays it down in the top ends with all the vigour in the world. The transition into the chorus sees the strings from the intro arrive back into the mix, helping to provide that contrast to proceedings we were all yearning for as we move along in a sea of momentum, breezing by to the impactful instrumentalism and Brown's inspired delivery. Captivating stuff. Up next comes 'Hurt Your Soul', which features Nate Bone on vocals, and this one is has a lot of interesting textures going on. The vinyl fuzz digs out a foundation underneath as Bone's vocals stick tight to the laid back drums underneath, but this stripped back affair provides us with all the focus towards Bone's words, who talks of never having love for the police cause they didn't have love for the streets, and the messages keep coming across to us as the track flows into the choral segment that sees background chords slide into view. The slide back into the verse sees further synergy abound from the words and the drums, and it's an incredibly effective relationship to dwell within. Superb stuff.
Up next comes 'My Own', which features Marlowe on vocals, and this one starts off in a very full state indeed. The drums are full and brimming with fills, expressive to the match, and with the guitar riff in the background and piano stabs abounding from underneath, it's no surprise that Marlowe's flow is suitably upbeat and intricate, his lyricism crisp to the ear and very effective at filling the upper ends of the track. The shift from the verse into the chorus is impeccably pulled off, with the instrumentals rising higher and higher as time passes by, with the keys in particular adding depth to the groove. This one is big. Up next comes 'Cosmosis', which features the poet and writer Ben Okri and rapper Skepta, and this one starts off with the a consistent thud and big beefy chords to get us going. The intro salvo keeps a steady pace, getting us whipped into shape and preparing us for the breakdown, and oh what a breakdown it is, as Allen's swinging drum pattern fills in the gaps with feel, as gorgeous key lines and bass segments throw themselves into the progression. Whilst this is all unravelling, Okri begins his vocal performance, initially talking about things break and how the mind quakes to then moving in how 'osmosis' change can occur through music and how things can turn with time. It's an overpoweringly positive message, one very much taken from a place of hindsight and how foresight can lead us into a better tomorrow from these trouble times. Skepta arrives soon after to deliver a equally powerful snapshot series of bars, and before long we are back again with Okri speaking with purpose over the ever evolving instrumentals, before one final message from Skepta sees the track out. To wrap things up, we have Allen, who has these words to say:
I don't know when to stop.....you know...what I am doing is exploring is exploring this music field, because there is no end, there is no end to it....we just have to explore
A fitting end, truly.
The history of music is filled with individuals who saw opportunities exist within the rich lexicon of genre styles and languages, and made it their calling to discover just how far they could push the boundaries of the spaces where genres overlap. These artists very much caused the most significant of ripples throughout music's rich tapestry, their presence and creative will becoming a guiding light for others to follow and make their own enchanting tales with. Tony Allen was one of these artists, a ground breaking musician in every sense of the word who saw a silver lining and travelled to that horizon line, and rather than standing still he ended up dictating the dawning of new days, of new eras of expressionism, something which would be a hallmark of his near peerless career. This record, Allen's last, is as much a tribute to artists that he respects as it is a final statement made by the drummer, one that showcased his tireless enthusiasm to push the boat out and explore every single corner of his world and in many ways everyone else's corners too. The music found within is as dynamic and diverse as ever, with each track catering for the various guests by offering up such a myriad of rhythms and accompanying melodics that their performances simply dazzle as a result. There's so many wonderful moments here, with all the vocalists on top form as we move with meaning between the drums, the narrative being displayed to us, and the audial environment, just looking to capture everything that comes forth from this brilliant album. Allen might not be among us anymore, but his legacy lives on with this record, a final statement from an icon who very much gave himself over to his craft and his creative endeavours, and the world will never forget him for it. Simply brilliant.
Support the troops: