Tony Allen, Fela Kuti's drumming counterpart in the creation of Afrobeat, has been quite active in the 21st century, recording with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Zap Mama, and in supergroups the Good, the Bad & the Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon. That said, the last releases under his own name were 2006's Secret Agent and 2007's collaboration with Jimi Tenor on the fourth volume of Strut's Inspiration Information series. Film of Life was recorded in France with the Jazzbastards playing and producing, and a slew of guests contributing to its musical mix.
Tony Allen has wandered into that Artist-Who-Can-Do-No-Wrong category, and that’s a touchy place to be. Numerous positive reviews can lead to overkill, and that overkill can lead to suspicion or disinterest for the uninitiated, to say the very least (for examples, see Radiohead, Flaming Lips or any other act one feels gets too much critical attention). It’s doubtful that Tony Allen sought out to become the world’s poster boy for all things Afrobeat.
When you are rightly praised as the greatest drummer Africa has produced, and helped to create Afrobeat along with Fela Kuti, then there’s no need for indulgent solos. At 74, Tony Allen has released his 10th album, a cool, contemporary set dominated, of course, by relaxed, subtle and insistent percussion. His laid-back voice dominates the first two tracks here: the glorious light and slinky Moving On, and Boat Journey, a warning about the dangers facing illegal migrants.
Best known for defining the pulse of Fela Kuti’s propulsive Afrobeat sound, the self-taught Tony Allen is a near superhuman combination of metronomic sense of time, light touch, economy, endurance, and musicality. Though it took a long time, his distinctive beat is part of the world’s musical vocabulary now. Since parting ways with Fela, he’s done quite a range of work, including a couple of recent, fairly high-profile collaborations with Damon Albarn that took him pretty far away from the pigeonhole people tend to place him in on the basis of his best-known playing.
For a man in his mid-'70s, Tony Allen still has a hell of a lot of reach. In recent years, the legendary Nigerian sticksman—once hailed as the best drummer in the world by Brian Eno—has imparted his Afrobeat influence over artists as diverse as Sébastien Tellier, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Flea. .
Tony Allen is older than Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney or Paul Simon, and while the old Anglo-American greats (Simon excluded) seem to share a tendency to look back or dig their heels in, Allen's forward motion is refreshing and remarkable. Film Of Life is more of a consolidation than a mission statement or a retrospective. It may lack the epic and historic punch of his 70s work, but as a collection of music it's difficult to fault.
Some artists require no introduction. Others can boast of achievements worthy of household status, but remain instantly recognisable to enthusiasts only. Despite high profile collaborations with Damon Albarn, a key role with the Africa Express project and a string of acclaimed recent solo albums, Tony Allen remains in the latter category. This is a somewhat unfair state of affairs, considering Allen's accomplishments.