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Afrobeat Legend Tony Allen Unleashes A 'Secret Agent'

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Afrobeat Legend Tony Allen Unleashes A 'Secret Agent'

Afrobeat Legend Tony Allen Unleashes A 'Secret Agent'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Tony Allen was working as an electrical technician when he broke the news to his parents that he was going to change careers. He wanted to be a musician. They balked. Born in Lagos, Nigeria in the 1940s, Allen grew up listening to jazz drummers like Gene Krupa and Art Blakey and mimicked their styles. He hopped from band to band before eventually teaming up with a jazz radio host named Fela Kuti.

Together, they basically invented an entirely new genre, Afrobeat. Without Tony Allen, Fela Kuti once said, there'd be no Afrobeat. Now, almost four decades later, Tony Allen has a new album out.

(Soundbite of song, "Secret Agent")

Mr. TONY ALLEN (Musician): (Singing) Before I knew it, I didn't (unintelligible)...

ROBERTS: That's "Secret Agent," a song from his record of the same name. Today, Allen lives in Paris and joins us from there. Welcome.

Mr. ALLEN: Welcome.

ROBERTS: The first track, "Secret Agent," what does that title mean?

Mr. ALLEN: It's just like a warning, you know, a warning. Because this happens every time, you know, like your best friend could be your worst enemy, you know what I mean? So, it just a question of warning to everybody as just, watch your back. You know, secret agent.

(Soundbite of song, "Secret Agent")

ROBERTS: How many different languages do you sing in on this album?

Mr. ALLEN: Oh, I've sung my language and I've sung broken English and I would say three languages.

ROBERTS: Do you think a political message or a social message is an inherent part of Afrobeat?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I would say yes, and at the same time I might say no, because I think political messages could be sent through any kind of music. That's the way I look at it. So, I've done that. I've sung about things wrong in my country. I've sung about things wrong, different parts, but sometimes I think we've said enough and we're just waiting for a change.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Well, I mean, there's a song like "Celebrate" on your album, which is, first of all, it's a great dance tune but also it just seems like this very positive affirmation of life, that it doesn't have an undercurrent of a political message. Am I missing something?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes, (unintelligible). That one, for instance, you know, it's a message, kind of a message but that one wasn't political at all. It's just like sometimes we just think about celebrating my age, celebrating birthday parties, celebrating, whatever, new house or whatever. That's not all the celebrations anyway. Celebration is every day, that's the way we look at it. It's like, you know, it's every day we celebrate. We should be celebrating every day.

(Soundbite of song, "Celebrate")

Mr. ALLEN: (Singing) Everyone waiting for the (unintelligible), everyone must (unintelligible) in the champion, so celebrate your life, celebrate your everyday life, I say oh, every day is good to celebrate...

When anybody that sleeps in the night, you know, for instance, you go to bed at night and if you see yourself awake the next day, you say, you just have to thank your God and then start celebrating, because it's celebration. You have to celebrate. You are celebrating because you are awake, you are there that day.

ROBERTS: You know, in the last couple of weeks, there's been a peaceful transition of power in Nigeria. Goodluck Jonathan has taken over without any bloodshed. Is that part of this celebration? Is that a reason to not have everything be quite so angry and political?

Mr. ALLEN: Oh yes, that's it. You know, for the first time that there was transition that never caused no problem, you know? So, I like it to be like that. It's part of a celebration anyway, too.

ROBERTS: Which is not to say there aren't, you know, some protest messages on this album, like the song "Pariwo," which means shout, protest, make some noise?

Mr. ALLEN: That's right.

ROBERTS: What do you think we should make some noise about?

Mr. ALLEN: We make noise about, is to make them open their ears. Open their ears and make sure they listen to the people and do the right thing for the people, you know?

(Soundbite of song, "Pariwo")

Mr. ALLEN: (Singing) ...many things, we all like to talk too much, too much. This thing when I get to talk about, lend your ear, make you hear. The thing will happen for the country, the powers be careful...

Since Nigeria became democratic, to me personally, I haven't seen anything really done yet, you know? Because, for instance, look at us, power, you know, electricity. It's not that this country doesn't have the money to clean up all the generators and put electricity power for the country to run, you know? They have the money but it won't go there. They won't spend it there. So, I don't know what they spend it for anyway. It's for their own pockets, everybody.

So, we will just keep on shouting all the time, you know. Shouting, shouting, shouting - maybe one day they will hear us.

(Soundbite of song, "Pariwo")

Mr. ALLEN: (Singing) Pariwo, pariwo, pariwo. Pariwo, pariwo...

ROBERTS: I know you grew up listening to jazz musicians like Art Blakey. And I love the detail that you learned how to use the hi-hat on your drum set from Max Roach.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, Max Roach, yeah.

ROBERTS: Who do you listen to these days?

Mr. ALLEN: I still listen to every one of them. Sometimes I just like to go back to them, you know, just to check again, you know. These days, there are no drummers these days anymore.

ROBERTS: Why not?

Mr. ALLEN: I have to go back - no drummers. Look at today, most of them are not even wanting to sit down at the drums and play anymore. The machine is there now to do the job. It's just by your fingers now. You just press fingers and drums happening. So, I respect every drummer that I see keeping the drums going.

ROBERTS: People who are actually using the instrument instead of the drum machine.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, exactly.

ROBERTS: I know your family wasn't particularly thrilled about the idea of your becoming a musician. Are they proud of you now?

Mr. ALLEN: They are no more. Although they knew before they passed away, they knew I was heading somewhere anyway. So, I'm sure wherever they are today, they are not disappointed.

ROBERTS: Tony Allen, it's been a pleasure talking to you. We're going to finish with a track from your album. Is there anything you particularly want us to play?

Mr. ALLEN: Why not let us celebrate today like we are having a chat with each other today. You don't think we should celebrate?

ROBERTS: I think that's a great excuse to celebrate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: As if we need one.

(Soundbite of song, "Celebrate")

Mr. ALLEN and SINGERS: (Singing) Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say.

ROBERTS: Drummer Tony Allen joining me from Paris. His new album is called "Secret Agent." Thank you so much.

Mr. ALLEN: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of song, "Celebrate")

Mr. ALLEN and SINGERS: (Singing) Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say...

ROBERTS: You can hear songs from "Secret Agent" at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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