When none other than Damon Albarn labels you the best drummer in the world, you’d be forgiven for acting like a bit of drumming diva – throwing sticks at hapless musicians for missing notes and going on extended outlandish solos on a random whim. However the man who gave Afrobeat its unique pulse, that would go on to influence countless musicians, is anything but. Tony Allen keeps a humble and modest, almost mystical presence shrouded in smoke during much of the performance, preferring to let his inspired six-piece band consisting of trumpet, keys/synthesizer, guitar and percussion do most of the talking at the sold out Village Underground – one of the stand-out gigs during London’s week long Jazz Festival.
Performing much of his latest album Film of Life, Allen has succeeded in expanding on the blueprint he and Fela created back in the ’60s and ’70s, updating the sound to keep it unique and original in the present day muddy music backdrop. The album translates extremely well in a live environment; the shrewd use of effects added to the sax, trumpet and synth in particular add a welcome texture and layer to the overall mix. Its title is apt, as the psychedelic, post-apocalyptic, highlife-infused space-funk and intricate, complex yet danceable rhythms take you on a journey through a hypnotic Nollywood spy movie meets Interstellar-esque soundscape.
Triumphant yet soulful horns punctuate the air as Allen keeps a variation of impeccable beats tight and grooving throughout, belying his 74 years. The lack of a singer present might leave the band lacking a focal point, but with tunes this vibrant the music truly speaks for itself in a way few instrumental groups can pull off. After a much demanded and appreciated encore goes past the venue’s curfew, Allen takes centre stage to humbly express his thanks to all in attendance. He then exits stage left to an ovation befitting the living legend that he is, a celebratory end to one of the finest gigs of the year.
By Shaun Cronin