06.10. – Happy Birthday !!! Classic Blue Note releases of the 1960s are filled with tracks that exoticise Africa, with names such as Afro Blue, Afrodisia, Ghana, Niger Mambo, Mr Kenyatta, The Man from Tanganyika and so on.
Five decades later, Blue Note’s latest signing Tony Allen – the Nigerian drummer who powered Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat – is turning the tables and exoticising Blue Note’s hard-bop. The Source builds on Allen’s recent mini-LP of Art Blakey covers, but this time he and musical director Yann Jankielewicz invoke other jazz legends. Ewajo recalls Miles Davis’s angular modal jazz; On Fire is based around a Dizzy Gillespie-style chromatic trumpet riff; Cruising evokes Duke Ellington’s tone poems; Push and Pull sounds like an ecstatic New Orleans marching band. Each is set to one of Allen’s herky-jerky drum patterns and a restrictive ostinato bassline, but Allen’s Parisian band explore each theme in detail, with some garrulous, impressive solos from the likes of saxophonist Rémi Sciuto and trumpeter Nicolas Giraud.
‘Mr Afrobeat’ returns, this time on the world’s leading world music label. Like his last album Lagos No Shaking, this was recorded in Allen’s old stomping ground, Lagos, the sprawling Nigerian megacity he refers to as ‘a complete mother****** of a place’. And, just as on that record, Allen is joined by several local guest vocalists. It’s business as usual and business, as usual, is pretty damn good.
The title may well refer to Allen’s famously spectral presence on his own albums, so ubiquitous but unobtrusive that he’s almost invisible when he’s right there in front of you. Although he is Africa’s most famous drummer, you won’t hear any drum solos on Secret Agent. But his kit is a constant presence driving the vibe, the trademark double-kick drum motif of Afrobeat criss-crossing with ting-tinging ride cymbals, gasping hi-hats, shuffling snares and those deceptively simple rolls on the toms that conclude a typical Tony Allen bar.
Gratifyingly, he book-ends the album with two of his own casually murmured lead vocals – partly a by-product of having to sing and play at the same time for much of his solo career. There are five other lead singers, most obviously Oribiyi Adunni a.k.a. AYO, whose sometimes strident vocals bring a contemporary R&B/soul diva flavour to Ijo, Nina Lowo, Ayenlo and Atuwaba.
The other most notable vocal presence is King Odudu, sounding as if he could easily be a member of Fela Kuti’s family on the slinky Celebrate and Pariwo. Despite the relaxed vibe of the latter, its militant Broken English lyrics (“culture, not torture”) continue Kuti’s Afrobeat tradition of speaking out against injustice. And the same is true of the ‘blaxploitation’-flavoured Elewon Po, which finds Allen protesting that there are “Too many prisoners”.
Secret Agent boasts some very tasty licks from Cameroonian guitarist Claude Dibongue, and especially sublime horn arrangements by co-producer Fixi, who also tinkers with Rhodes, keyboards, synths, trombone and accordion in a couple of places. Although Tony Allen is approaching his 70th birthday, Afrobeat’s co-creator isn’t resting on his laurels.
When you are rightly praised as the greatest drummer Africa has produced, and helped to create Afrobeat along with Fela Kuti, then there’s no need for indulgent solos. At 74, Tony Allen has released his 10th album, a cool, contemporary set dominated, of course, by relaxed, subtle and insistent percussion. His laid-back voice dominates the first two tracks here: the glorious light and slinky Moving On, and Boat Journey, a warning about the dangers facing illegal migrants. This theme is repeated in Go Back, one of two tracks he co-wrote with Damon Albarn, who provides lead vocals and keyboards on a powerful, drifting ballad. Elsewhere, there’s a bluesy song from the US-based Nigerian singer Kuku, and rousing, brass-backed funk from the Nigerian female vocal group Adunni and Nefertiti, driven on by a master-drummer still in glorious form.