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Tony Allen 70: Nigeria 50


Featuring Lekan Babalola

Pee Wee Ellis, Keziah Jones

Seun Kuti, Cheikh Lo

Eska Mtungwasi, Dele Sosimi

Jimi Tenor, Thandiswa

Ty, Jason Yarde

Byron Wallen and Wunmi


Barbican Hall

6 Oct 2010







A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

Tony Allen has just turned 70. Tonight celebrates his birthday alongside 50 years of Nigerian Independence. During the single year of 1960, no less than 17 African nations gained independence, as a wave of decolonization swept the continent. It was the year Allen decided to become a professional musician. In 1964 he joined Fela Kuti's band Koola Lobitos. Fired up by the radical political climate and experimentation of the ’60’s, together they revolutionised music with the creation of Afrobeat - a combination of traditional Nigerian drumming known as Yoruba and Highlife - a genre of music originally from Ghana featuring jazzy horns and multiple guitars, Funk, Jazz and chanted vocals. His career has spanned over thirty albums. However in 1979, Allen began his solo career with his first record No Discrimination; since then he has worked with a vast array of musicians. In recent years his most notable collaboration has been as a part of Damon Albarn's latest group The Good, The Bad and the Queen. The musicians who join him on stage tonight are living proof of his genre defying style. From Lagos by way of Paris there is the raw “Blufunk” of Keziah Jones. Heralding from South Africa, we have the thunderous diva Thandiswa. Originally born in Zimbabwe, Eska Mtungwasi provides Soulful Jazz vocals. From the States, James Brown's legendary Saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis performs a few numbers. Lekan Babalola, the Nigerian percussionist supplies a pulsing African rhythm. Husky voiced, Senegalese singer songwriter Cheik Lo plays a couple of his acoustic songs. Jimi Tenor, a Finnish multi instrumentalist, sings and plays sax. We have the fierce vocals and striking figure of Wunmi alongside the jazzy keyboard groove of Dele Sosimi. As if that wasn't enough the late Fela Kuti's son Seun Kuti, joins Allen on saxophone, while closer to home we have UK rapper, TY and Brit jazz pioneers, Jason Yarde and Byron Wallen, the shows musical director performing.

Once the other band members take to the stage, Tony Allen humbly appears and takes his seat behind a drum kit. He wears a black shirt with red flowers and a matching Taqiyah, a gold earring dangles jauntily from his left ear. After the initial thunder of applause and wild cheers die down, Allen attempts to introduce himself but after his initial muddled, meandering, he coolly states in his charming French accent “We're here to just kind of groove... I'm not very good at talking” and that is exactly what they do. Allen plays the drums with a cool, collected control, relaxed and composed, he never once looks down, but always out. Hardly moving, his hands effortlessly criss - cross, from high hat to snare, ride cymbal to toms, drumming out a funky groove with an off- hand ease. Allen is undoubtedly one of Africa's greatest master drummers, self taught with a genuine instinctual feel for rhythm; he plays so casually that you would be forgiven for thinking this is easy – it's not. The last time I tried to play the drums, the neighbours tried to have me sectioned!

Allen is an uncomplicated performer, here there is no need for showmanship - one is dazzled by the wonderful complexity of sound he achieves with such apparent simplicity. At no moment does the concert feel laboured or pretentious rather, Allen plays with fresh immediacy allowing the drums to speak for themselves. Later on in the performance in one of his humorous asides he says: “Music doesn't have any language, it's one”. Tonight is about loving music in yourself, not yourself in music.

Tony Allen's band play a funky groove, with the wah wah guitar bringing to mind car chases in ‘70’s Blaxploitation films. The sound shifts from jazzy horns to funk bass lines, Allen's Afrobeat providing the rhythm, switching up to suit the pace of each new track. On certain song Allen sings in his easy going conversational style, which blends with Audrey Gbaguidi's soaring vocals into a chorus of chanting. This is especially memorable on his song ‘Kindness, where the brilliant line “Don't take my kindness for weakness” is repeated, becoming a philosophically potent mantra for the seventy year old. Oghene Kologbo on lead guitar puts on a brilliant show as he shuffles along to his scuffling riffs, mischievously dancing to the music, his whole body tweaking to his solo's high notes.

Jimi Tenor joins the action early on, with his first track ‘Selfish Gene’. Tenor collaborated with Allen on their much praised album in the Inspiration Information series. Tenor in candy pink suit and white shades plays his sax with a cool fluency, as Allen adapts to the sound with a rolling, jazzy beat. The horns send out a flurry of notes to support the sauntering rhythm. Tenor's falsetto voice at times sounds similar to Beck.

The aptly named Cheik Lo performs his assuasive ‘Ne Parti pas,’ his long dreadlocks hanging down around his chessboard kimono and aviators. His voice has a wonderfully husky timbre to it, like molten honey pouring out of his mouth. This track has a soporific, lullaby like effect. The equally entertainingly named Pee Wee Ellis accompanies his gentle acoustic guitar with a soothing sax melody.

It is clear that this is not going to be a conservative, sedate concert, as by midway through the performance almost everyone is standing up in the aisles, on the steps, or dancing in front of their seats. People have come here to abandon themselves to Allen's music and so they do, swaying from side to side and dancing on the spot as the blue lights wash the crowd. The musicians play with even more vigour encouraged by the audience's energetic response.

British rapper Ty performs alongside Eska on a track called ‘What's Your Fashion.’ Ty's London accent and thoughtfully cadent rhymes provides an interesting contrast to Eska's smoothe vocals which add a rich deepness to the hook, while a clarinet creates a hazy rhythm. Always willing to push boundaries, the presence of Ty is testament to Allen's consistently experimental style as he seamlessly fuses Afrobeat jazz with UK Hip Hop.

When “Blufunk” singer songwriter Keziah Jones performs alone on stage the crowd is captivated. He wears a tight beige shirt with multicoloured stripes and matching flares, a trilby coolly angled on his head. With one Converse propped up on a stool, he sounds out an incredibly commanding Hendrix style bluesy solo. Jones plays with ferocious talent and enjoyment, maintaining a laid - back ease despite the sheer complexity of the solo. His hand slides up the neck of the guitar with unbelievable speed and skill, strumming with loose flicks of the wrist, resonating squeals - a thunder that electrifies your central nervous system.

One of the most stunning performers of the night has to be Thandiswa, whose ferocious voice alternates between growls, ululations and piercing high notes. Complemented by Lekan Babalola's poly rhythmic hand tapping and Rody Cereyon's bass, her voice fills the whole auditorium with its mercurial power. Thandiswa cuts an imposing figure, with a white stripe running down the centre of her shaved head; her hand hitches up her blue, satin dress, revealing its canary yellow lining. She rolls her head in a passionate display of musical prowess, her beads swinging about her neck. At times her voice even imitates a rattle while at others she fumes breathlessly. Xavier Bossard's keyboards adds a chilled undertone to balance her audacious vocal power, while Audrey Gbaguidi, Wummi & Eska sit beside the drums acting as her backing singers, responding to her voice with a chorus of Ahs. When the stabbing horns kick in, they escalate the violence of the music which builds to its overwhelming climax. By the end of her two songs, the audience is enraptured and she receives a standing ovation.

When Seun Kuti arrives on stage, the crowd go wild with excitement. Seun is the youngest son of the legendary, late Fela Kuti and has inherited his father's natural charisma. In a tight saffron shirt and flares he begins with ‘Suffering and Smiling’, playing his saxophone with sultry beauty. Kologbo adds an exceptional solo which is intensified by the exclaiming trumpets, as the audience clap along and the music grows, led by Allen's exact yet informal drumming.

Once the whole crowd mirthfully sing Allen ‘Happy Birthday’, the gig is wrapped up with all the musicians on stage. Lead by the resonant vocals of Audrey Gbaguidi chanting “Every day is a good day to celebrate”, she is gradually joined by the rest of the vocalists. Red and yellow lights shine warmly onto the performers as Allen's beat suavely rolls us forward with the tingling of cymbals and thud of toms, parried by the slick horns. Guitar riffs mingle in a glorious fusion of sounds, while the keyboards jauntily add swing to a triumph of musical achievement, filling the audience with a joy and zeal for life. In Allen's own words, “You don't need to wait till Christmas or Easter or your birthday to celebrate, as long as you can sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow, you should celebrate!”


Barbican Centre 
Silk Street 
London EC2Y 8DS 

Nearest tube: Barbican 

Main Switchboard: 
020 7638 4141

Box Office: 
020 7638 8891 
9am - 8pm Mon - Sat
11am - 8pm Sun 

6 Oct 2010









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