Yesterday at age 79,
Tony Allen, joined the ancestors.
Allen, born in Ghana,
was Fela’s lead drummer and bandleader
for many many years.
But the drummer is typically positioned
at the background of the stage,
and you hardly ever see them.
The singer is always in front.
There is a good reason to place Allen at the back of Fela’s stage: Allen was the rhythm pounder for Fela’s music. If the rhythm is tight, others could afford to screw up a little, without the music falling apart. Allen never faltered. He was the oil that ran what Fela described as his “music machine.”
When I paint, my favorite music is Fela.
In his “tune,” I find Allen’s rhythmic patterns and I use Fela’s musical colors.
During a live concert that Fela gave in Paris in 1981, Fela, on stage, said, “That’s the basic rhythm, brothers and sisters, I’m going to put the base in now, and you don’t know where it’s going to come in.” Then he counted, “One, two, three, four….”
And in came the base, giving a resonant depth to the rhythm.
Every moment of the “tune” is perfectly constructed into an architectural structure that becomes Fela’s machine. When it all comes together, it sounds so organic, that it appears woven by a machine.
Some people think that it is marijuana that enabled Fela to be so great as an artist. Fela’s saxophone genius, Baba Animashaun–who never smoked–disagreed. He thought Fela would have been even better if Fela did not smoke pot; that the pot was a distraction.
What the pot did for Fela was what it does for every young artist: it enabled him to get off the street, move into the interiority of his mind, and focus on his obsession, without distractions. I have hung out with many artists who were habitual users of pot–including Fela–and understand their need for that distancing tool. But, at some point, after an artist has cultivated the habit of staying alone to compose, s/he no longer needs that crutch. That is what Miles Davis, the jazz maestro, means by saying that the best high is the air.
Yesterday, I returned to painting in acrylic pigments again. I turned to Fela’s music, and began picking out Allen’s rhythmic patterns from the composition, as a means of structuring my arrangements on the canvas. And after the drawing was done, I switched to the colors that Fela gave the music with his sax harmonies and piano discords.
I also sought out Fela’s painful political message, as I explore “Mungo Park Discovering River Niger.”
Then Femi Ifaturoti, my co-conspirator, sent me a text message that Tony Allen has transitioned, and has joined Fela and Bob Marley in Àjùlé Ọ̀run, to play for their celestial band.