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. But whether he likes it or not, he’s leading the pack. After all, you don’t spend 25 years of your life playing drums for the late, great Fela Kuti only to go down in history as a time-keeper. As long as Allen just shows up and does his thing, people are going to be pleased. His skills as a musician never waiver and the music he conjures with the help available remains as vibrant and danceable as it did over 40 years ago when the musical subgenre known as Afrobeat sprung into being. That was the case last time and that’s the case now with the delightful Film of Life.
The first track is appropriately named “Moving On”. Far from starting the album with a bang, it’s just the sound of Allen and his group nudging their way into place. Audrey Gbaguidi’s vocals announce the track’s title nearly two minutes into the thing! Allen provides the spoken word response to her sung call, thanking the listener for tuning in to his music. Music, for him, is a place of “no discrimination”. And that’s as good a place to dive in as any other, right?
It may not as politically charged as anything he’s done with Kuti and Afrika 70, but Allen uses Film of Life as an opportunity to show off his some of his talented friends. One notable cameo here is Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, who recruited Allen for The Good, the Bad & the Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon. If your mind were to wander while listening to the single “Go Back”, it could pass for something done under one of Albarn’s guises. But sitting squarely at track seven on Film of Life, it also manages to blend right in with the rest. It pits a light, bouncy rhythm against minor chords played by syrupy keyboard strings. “What am I gonna do with you when you go back?” goes the rhetorical chorus, repeating over the fade. Albarn adds his touch but simultaneously knows his place. Besides, who else plays a snare drum that way?
I’ve always suspected that Tony Allen is one of those drummers that other drummers love to hate. Not only can he broadcast a distinct musical identity through his instrument, but he manages to make all of his African polyrhythms look (and sound) so easy. When the rest of the band (principally made up of the Jazz Bastards) takes a break to let Allen solo, he takes over in a way that can be counter-intuitive to many listeners. For instance, the minimal funk track “Afro KungFu Beat” finds Allen starting his solo by playing only the off-beats for an uncomfortable length of time. It can give you anxiety if you are inclined to tap your foot to music. But after a few bars of steady buildup, everything pulls through. Even the dated synthesizer is there to greet you at the other end, like cool water on a hot day. Film of Life‘s creepy-crawler “Ewa” doesn’t get nearly as tricky and deceptive during the solo breaks, but that matters little once you hear the main piano figure.
The music is often times so good that vocals don’t seem necessary, but Nigerian vocalists Adunni & Nefertiti and Kuku give it their all on “Ire Omo” and “Tony Wood”. The skin-tight horns of the former almost depict an urban American R&B shuffle. But album closer “Tony Wood” is the slow burner with Kuku emoting to the limits of his voice through a vocoder. I swear I can hear Cesar Anot’s dub bass levitating.
For the past 20 years or so we’ve witnessed the many ways in which African music can rub off on Western forms. But does it go the other way? “Tiger’s Skip” suggests that it might happen soon. Co-written by Albarn, the easy-going melody from the melodica has more to do with the Britpop icon’s musical curiosities of the 21st century than the rebel rousing sounds of Afrika 70. But as was the case with “Go Back”, “Tiger’s Skip” is no sore thumb. With Film of Life, Tony Allen brings many tempos and many moods under one Afrobeat umbrella without breaking a sweat. For him, it’s another day in the studio. For us, it’s an outstanding work of art for the mind, hips and toes.