Tony Allen has long been acknowledged as Africa’s finest kit drummer and one of the continent’s most influential musicians. His playing draws on four different styles – highlife, soul/funk, jazz and traditional Nigerian drumming. A unique and mighty sound. Together with Fela Kuti (with whom he played for 15 years) Allen co-created Afrobeat - the hard driving, horns rich, funk-infused, politically insurrectionary style which became such a dominant force in African music and such an influence worldwide.
‘Secret Agent’, a majestic slice of hardcore roots Afrobeat, is Allen's debut for World Circuit and his first release since he became a founder member of The Good The Bad and The Queen (alongside Damon Albarn, Paul Simenon and Simon Tong). Afrobeat is currently enjoying an upsurge of interest and for fans of hip-hop, funk and jazz, Allen, holder of the Afrobeat flame, is today revered as its seminal living figure.
‘Secret Agent’ produced by Allen himself, was recorded with his hard-schooled touring band which comprises players from Nigeria, Cameroon, Martinique and France. The music is foursquare in the Afrobeat tradition - nagging tenor guitar, funky keyboards, soulful call and response vocals, and fat, full throated, hard riffing horns - with a few twists (deliciously including keyboard player and arranger Fixi’s accordion on some tracks). And at its heart, of course, is the beat itself, even more prominent now than it was in Fela Kuti’s legendary band Afrika 70. Allen drives the music on, straight as an arrow, in a loose-limbed ragged shuffle, fusing the cross rhythms into one irresistible forward motion.
The vocals are handled by the Lagos based Nigerian singers Ayo, King Odudu, Switch, Kefee Obareki and Wura Samba “Afrobeat disciples all” says Allen. Allen himself takes lead vocals on “Secret Agent” and “Elewon Po.”
The songs on Secret Agent stay true to Afrobeat’s original, trademark embrace of protest lyrics. “Pariwo” (shout, make some noise) and “Elewon Po” (too many prisoners) urge resistance to oppression. Others, like “Nina Lowo” (money is to be spent) and “Atuwaba” (no matter if things are bad, they’ll get better), are based on traditional folk proverbs. Some are irresistible exhortations to party - “Ijo” (dance) and “Alutere” (the message the drums transmit) celebrate Afrobeat in general and Allen’s genius in particular. “Fela had a different way of writing,” says Allen. “He wrote like a singer. I write like a drummer.”
Secret Agent comes from the deep, molten core of Afrobeat - “the rhythm of gold, the rhythm of class, the rhythm of pleasure, full of history of our world,” as Ayo sings on “Ijo”. Kuti, without a doubt, would have loved it.