Afrobeat Legend Tony Allen Unleashes A 'Secret Agent' The Nigerian singer-percussionist only started playing the drums at 18, but after teaming up with a jazz radio host named Fela Kuti, he practically invented a new genre of music: Afrobeat. Almost four decades later, Allen is still making Afrobeat music.
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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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REBECCA ROBERTS, Host:

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")

M: (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.

M: Welcome.

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

M: 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?

M: 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?

M: 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?

M: 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")

M: 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?

M: 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?

M: That's right.

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

M: 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")

M: 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")

M: (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.

M: Yeah, Max Roach, yeah.

ROBERTS: Who do you listen to these days?

M: 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?

M: 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.

M: 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?

M: 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?

M: 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")

M: (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.

M: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CELEBRATE")

M: (Singing) Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say. Celebrate your life, I say...

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

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