Afrobeat will be one of the musics of the future" - Miles Davis
While many people know the age old saying, "behind every great man is a great woman," many people seem to ignore the fact that in nearly every case, behind every great frontman, there are at least two or three equally fantastic musicians in the backing band. Whether it was Page behind Plant, Hancock behind Davis, or Wesley and Collins behind James Brown, throughout all of music history, some of the finest musicians were those who "made the greats great." However, once one steps away from commercially successful music, while the theory is still the same, one must often dig a bit deeper to see this trend. Throughout the entire history of music, the idea of "greats behind greats" has perhaps been no more apparent than when one looks at the brilliant rhythm sections of AfroBeat master, Fela Kuti. While Fela himself remains today one of the most amazing and influential musicians in history, without question one of the key factors to his music was the presence of one of the greatest drummers in history, Tony Allen. As the musical director for Kuti's Africa '70 for more than a decade, it was Allen who constructed and led the band on many of Kuti's most famous songs, and Allen's work as a performer, leader, and songwriter remain largely unrivaled. Having released a massive amount of work on his own, Tony Allen completely rewrote the books on what was possible within the AfroBeat genre with his stunning 1999 album from Comet Records, Black Voices.
While at first, the album seems to follow the time tested pattern of AfroBeat, it quickly begins to move into uncharted waters, as Allen is out to prove that one can take the old sound and seamlessly integrate it with new musical forms. The fact that such wild musical innovation was coming from Allen is truly stunning, when one takes into account that by this point, he was sixty years old, and for someone so established in a sound to attempt such a radical musical change, it is almost incomprehensible. The music itself is truly like nothing else before it, as Allen takes the classic AfroBeat sound and fuses it together with a dub and "DJ" sound that is as modern as one can get. This hybrid music that Allen creates actually began in the mid-1980's, when he was living in Paris, and recording with a wide range of artists, most notably, King Sunny Adé. After completing the recording sessions at La Corderie Studios in Paris, the mixes were given to Doctor L, and the songs were mixed without Allen’s input by Doctor L and Eric Trosset, making the resulting fusion of styles even more extraordinary. Allen’s purposeful lack of presence during the mixing process reflects his strong focus on group collaborations, and Doctor L similarly ensured that the soul and spirit behind the music was never lost. This communal vibe that permeates all of Black Voices was a perfect reflection of where Tony Allen was as a musician at the time. Having largely disappeared from the musical map since the passing of Fela Kuti, Allen began playing regularly in a Paris club called Cithea, run by artistic directors Eric Trosset and Manu Boubli, and Allen’s performances soon became the place to be for musicians in the area. This organic and smaller feel helped to keep the music pure, and it proved to be the ideal setting for Tony to fully realize all of the amazing music that was in his head. It was this partnership between Eric Trosset and Manu Boubli and Tony Allen that not only led to their collaboration on Black Voices, but also to the formation of Comet Records.
When one steps back and considers exactly "what" is going on throughout Black Voices, it is quite mind boggling, as it is almost impossible to associate a minimalist, electronic feel with the massive walls of sound which Allen was known to create. Yet these walls of sound and hypnotic rhythms are still very present, yet they gain an entirely new feel due to the presence of Allen's collaborator on Black Voices. Call him a DJ, call him a turn-tablist, call him whatever you like, but the truth of the matter is, Doctor L is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, as well as one of the finest collaborators with whom Tony Allen has ever worked. Throughout Black Voices, Doctor L takes the mesmerizing rhythms and musical progressions that Allen creates and he spins them into a stunningly modern sound, filling them with bright organ lines, as well as placing the occasional clavinet and more formal "dub DJ" effects. Such juxtaposition between an old and new sound has never sounded so exciting, and every single song on Black Voices is just as brilliant as the next, creating one of the finest, purest "groove" albums ever recorded. Doctor L plays nearly every instrument that Allen does, and this ability to have a second unquestionably skilled multi-instrumentalist is clearly one of the keys, and perhaps one of the main factors that led Allen to end his decade-long hiatus from recording. This amazing partnership, which was solidified during 2000’s tour to support Black Voices, would continue, as the core of musicians from Black Voices took the same role for Doctor L’s 2001 release, Psyco On Da Bus, and both of these records have stood tall over the past decade as prime examples of the fantastic results that can come from clashing genres.
While Doctor L's work throughout Black Voices is truly fantastic, it is clear that the genius behind the album lies within the mind of Tony Allen. Though he may not have gotten the credit like that of Kuti, few will argue that Allen's work and playing is not just as important. In fact, Kuti was often quoted as saying, "...without Tony Allen, there would be no AfroBeat." It is not until one experiences Black Voices that one can fully appreciate the truth behind Kuti's statement, as the deep, soulful moods that Allen creates on every track serve as proof that, while Kuti may have been the voice and the face of AfroBeat, it's hard to argue that Allen was anything less than the soul behind the sound. Creating some of the most heavily textured sounds in decades, Allen proves to still be in his musical prime, as the albums' opening track, "Asiko," is one of the most fantastic blends of high-tempo rhythmic hypnosis that remains unquestionably relaxed in mood. With brilliant keyboards from Fixi and the warm bass of Caesar Anot, the entire album gains a smooth and welcoming sound whilst staying vibrant and within wonderfully complex grooves. In fact, the true power and universal feel of “Asiko” was fully realized when, a year after its release, rapper Common sampled the song on the track “Heat” from his critically acclaimed album, Like Water For Chocolate. Presenting such stark juxtapositions was one of the keys to the success of the music of Kuti, and with Black Voices, it becomes clear that much of this was due to the efforts and talents of Allen. There are even clear forays into funk, as "Get Together" features as wonderfully murky bassline, along with absolutely brilliant "vocal jamming." There are so many musical styles present on Black Voices that it is often difficult to hear them all, and this in many ways is the magic behind the music of Tony Allen, as all of the sounds blend together into one single, beautiful groove.
With the absolutely mesmerizing, funky grooves that Allen creates, it comes a little surprise that the vocal collaborations are handled by members of one of the funkiest bands in history, Parliament-Funkadelic. With Michael “Clip” Payne and Gary “Mudbone” Cooper both lending their wonderfully distinctive voices, Black Voices stands as one of the most brilliant musical efforts as it crosses both musical and cultural boundaries. The pure joy that was created in these sessions was perhaps best summed up when Payne said, “…it wasn’t a record where we thought about having a hit...we just all wanted to play with each other.” While Black Voices solidifies the fact that one need not be African to play AfroBeat anymore, the truth of the matter is, this seemingly unlikely grouping came together as only due to the fact they were all working in the same recording studio in Paris. After Tony had done some parts for Coopers’ album, both Mudbone and Payne jumped at the chance to work with Allen. In many ways, there was much common ground between Tony Allen and the team of Payne and Cooper, as both had gained notoriety while backing music icons in the forms of Fela Kuti and George Clinton respectively. This was, in fact, the key ethos behind all of the Black Voices record because, as Payne explained, “Tony didn’t want it to be common…he wanted it to be more about the personalities in the room.” This is perfectly embodied in the title track, which brings to mind the thought that we can all shake another persons’ hand and found out about their background. The sense of musical freedom served well in this situation, as the mixing of both musical and cultural backgrounds turns Black Voices into an album like no other.
In honor of the 10th anniversary of the albums’ initial release, Comet Records saw it fit to re-release the record, giving the world an entirely new perspective on the music. In most cases, when an album receives a re-release, it usually features an updated, or re-mixed version of the original album. This is often done to give the album a new treatment, giving it the benefit of modern studio technologies, or a “more polished” feel. Yet in 2009, Eric Trosset A&R and founder of Comet Records together with Fixi decided to do what can be seen as the opposite with Tony Allen’s phenomenal 1999 release, Black Voices. Seeing as how the original version of the album was already filled with the brilliant production work of Doctor L, the re-release contains the original, unaltered recording sessions. These original sessions were produced by keyboardist, also arranger/producer of the Tony Allen Secret Agent album ,Fixi, along with one of France’s most talented sound engineer, Jean Lamoot, and their brilliance becomes immediately clear when one hears the amazing energy and mood they were able to capture. Without the almost “club” feel of the Black Voices versions, the true musical prowess of Tony Allen becomes far more clear, and it further reinforces how essential a role he played in the music of Fela Kuti. With the re-issue, in many ways, listeners will be able to experience a more accurate portrayal of Tony Allen’s vision. Allen himself has said that, while it is a very interesting take on the songs, the original release was not quite what he would have done. The re-release has “more groove…and not too many foreign bodies” as Allen says, and the energy and spirit of the initial settings shine through.
It is within these original recordings that one can clearly hear that, even after the work of Doctor L, the soul and energy of the music was left intact. This is to say that on Black Voices: Revisited, one is again left in awe of the sheer energy and spirit of Tony Allen, as the grooves he creates are some of the most deep and moving that have ever been recorded. Throughout the five songs, Allen proves again and again that his musical creativity knows no boundaries, and yet there remains simplicity throughout the music. With Allen providing an absolutely mesmerizing rhythm, he leaves plenty of space for each of his collaborators to fully explore what they hear within the music. It is this open and communal feel that is one of the key factors in the grooves becoming so deep and entrancing.
Released a decade ago, and now receiving a very deserved re-issue, Tony Allen's Black Voices marked the "official" end of his thirteen year hiatus from the music scene. Though he had released an EP a year earlier, it was with Black Voices that Allen showed the world what he had spent the previous years exploring and developing. Retaining the mesmerizing grooves that serve as the key to AfroBeat, Tony Allen enlisted some of the most talented musicians on the planet, and within an almost “jam session” type setting, they produced what is truly a group effort, and the personalities of each musician shines through. From the wild keyboard lines of Fixi to the amazing vocal work of Payne and Cooper, Black Voices was simply unlike anything else in music history. This "new" sound was truly like nothing else being made, and the sensational mixture of classic AfroBeat with a myriad of other genres and styles breathed new life into a music scene that was beginning to become rather stagnant. Standing as one of the most important musicians in the creation of the AfroBeat genre, Allen has kept busy since Black Voices, collaborating with many musicians, including his brilliant work on Damon Albarn’s The Good, The Bad And The Queen. Allen has also kept his solo work moving, and he seems to somehow continue to get better and more creative as the years go by, as his most recent release, 2009’s Secret Agent is yet another mind-blowing AfroBeat masterpiece. Tony Allen created a second stunning sound as he fused together the traditional sound he pioneered more than three decades earlier with a fresh, modern sound on his truly extraordinary 1999 album, Black Voices. With the new re-issue of Black Voices, every listener is given a stunning peek into the original sessions, and they prove to be just as vibrant and exciting as the 1999 release, and are without question just as important and moving as the original release. Though one would surely be hard pressed to find an album that is as musically brilliant as the original release of Black Voices, the re-issue is unquestionably as essential, and displays what is certainly the future of the AfroBeat sound. Joel Freimark