What comes next is wide-awake brilliance, with Allen meticulously working the kick, snare and high-hat to generate a crisp polyrhythm that pulsates with delirious finesse. When Brian Eno wondered whether Allen might be the greatest drummer who ever lived, “Afropusherman” helps make the case. The beat feels alert and alive, just as its implications feel purposeful and profound. Allen was showing us how to beat the drums of war in reverse, rethinking rhythm as a tool for instigating peace.
Radical politics had animated Allen’s music since 1964, back when the drummer — who died of an aortic aneurysm in Paris on Thursday at 79 — first met vocalist, visionary and bandleader Fela Kuti. Together, Kuti and Allen minted Afrobeat, a style of Nigerian funk that channeled James Brown’s momentous rhythm-language into pan-African protest songs that chased long, seductive grooves into a perilous future. As a bandleader, Kuti gave Afrobeat its revolutionary vision and its angry charisma. As Afrobeat’s rhythmic architect, Allen gave the music its feverish elegance and its clarifying grace.
Instead of marking time, Allen’s drumming flowed like it, effortlessly and unstoppably. You can hear it on “Zombie,” a salvo from 1976 against Nigeria’s military government that eventually became Kuti’s signature. Throughout, Kuti sings with stern fury, but it’s Allen’s exquisite funkiness that underscores the song’s message. Power makes it easy for the powerful to forfeit their humanity. Rhythm reminds the rest of us what it feels like to rejoice in our own.
The durability of Afrobeat has felt thrilling and sobering ever since. “If you check most of [Kuti’s] lyrics that he sang in the ’70s and ’80s, that is what is happening right now,” Allen told the Guardian in 2016. “War everywhere. And because of what? Power. And power that is lopsided.”
It’s easy to hear the steadiness in Allen’s drumming as an attempt to level out that lopsidedness. If we want to live in a world without wars, the beat can’t ever stop.