Interview: Tony Allen – Seeking the Next Groove (February 2019)

Don’t call him a drummer. Despite being one of the best on the music scene and still “setting the tempo” for generations of musicians who look at funk, jazz, beat (with the ‘afro’ prefix in front of them), Tony Allen doesn’t fully agree when you define him as a drummer.

He’s far more… He’s a musical explorer, always up and ready for new experiences and collaborations, and his most recent projects are there to demonstrate it. Look at his collaboration with Jeff Mills for example, or the one with Amp Fiddler. It’s not that he’s forgotten being the “beat in afrobeat”, but he has set his talent free and has gone far and beyond that definition.

We met him a few months ago, after his performance at the Ealing Jazz Festival in West London and had a quick chat about his perspective on music and collaborations.

Personally, I really enjoy being in different projects. I don’t give myself any attachment. Different people can inspire you if you are open and if you have an open mind to know and welcome what other musicians do. This is the way I look at myself. Also, the music I release, it’s for other people to make use of it, and I hope they’ll make good use.

To be open and welcome what other musicians play, you need to have a wide knowledge about music, which is facilitated by music listening…

I feel that I’m tripping as a musician at times, while I’m not tripping as a drummer. That’s because music is a very vast field; it’s something that there’s no end to.

So, when people ask me, what kind of music I’m listening to, I always answer ‘every kind of music’. You know why? Because I want to check what happens around me and I respect everybody.”

As mentioned previously, Tony Allen is a true musical explorer. The Nigerian musician constantly looks for new influences, inspirations, and sounds. In addition, what amazes us about him is the fact that his explorations are rational, not for the sake of exploring, but part of a bigger and evolving picture.

Every time I look to explore. By exploring, I mean not just like exploring the air. You need a subject or an object to explore. I don’t want to be fussing about the kind of music I play.

People invite me to be part of their projects and play every sort of music, and even though it’s not my style and the music hasn’t too much to do with me, playing makes me feel better, and I look forward to playing.

I don’t want to get stuck into my own thing alone. I don’t want to be taken only as a drummer; I’m not a drummer. I like to collaborate on a project, to find open-minded composers to work together.”

However, like every professional who dedicates his life to his job, Tony Allen lives for playing music and his drum.

“Then, it’s understood that I like to play, I don’t like to be static. For example, in a few days’ time, I’ll go to the US for an entire month, starting from LA. I’ll be on my own, without my band. So, as soon as I get off the plane, I’ll start looking for musicians to play with, because I want to perform.

After having lived between Lagos and London since he was 40, Tony Allen is now a Parisian to all intents and purposes. Still, despite the fact that he moved to the French capital back in 1984, and despite having found and founded a new music family (his current band) there, his soul is still 100% African.

“It’s thirty-three years that I’ve been living in Paris now. I could be French if I’d like, but my origin is still Nigerian, and I’m still an African with a vast and open mind. However, in Paris I feel entirely free to do my stuff, play my music, more than in London.

Also, the musicians I play with, my band, they have grown up with me. We are together; it’s a familiar business. If they are free, they play with me, while if they’re busy, they directly look for a replacement, somebody they trust. So working with them is like working with a family. As you could see today, I never talked with them on stage and I never do it. I even wear sunglasses, but they still understand where I’m looking and what I want from them.”

We closed our chat talking about his relationship with young drummers and musicians at large, and his advice to them.

I’m going to tell you what happened just a few days ago, when I went to St Petersburg. I was there to be one of the judges of a battle of the drummers, together with Bernard Purdie, a great American drummer. It was me, him and twenty-two young drummers. We were there to show them different grooves and then choose the best drummer among them. When I was showing them my groove, I didn’t call it afrobeat or funk, I just said that it was about drumming, I was drumming. I was after a groove, a generic one. It was about giving myself.


He will surely give himself once again on Saturday when he will play at the Walthamstow Jazz Festival and next Thursday for another episode of his collaboration with Jeff Mills at the Barbican.