TONY ALLEN Afro Disco Beat (Vampi Soul)
Oh, the shabbiness! This compilation by Tony Allen, the Nigerian percussionist famed for his work with Fela Kuti and Damon Albarn and, according to Brian Eno, “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”, is a triple album (with all three discs jostled into a single sleeve), yet the final side is blank. With side lengths varying from 16 minutes (good) to 29 minutes (not at all good), surely some more intelligent use of the available vinyl real estate could’ve reduced the sonic fallout. (Still, perhaps the damage isn’t as much as it could’ve been, given how, uh, earthy some of these recordings sound.) Oh, and the label on my copy’s side one is from a completely different album, so thanks for that, Quality Control.
However, if you can get past this collection’s slapped-together aesthetic, this might just be your idea of a delight. What’s not apparent until you’re deep into the booklet notes is that “Afro Disco Beat” compiles complete four (count ‘em!) albums – “Jealousy” (1975), “Progress” (1977)”, “No Accommodation For Lagos” (1978) and “No Discrimination” (1979). Such largesse is tempered somewhat on realising that the Nigerian idea of an album is more akin to the European 12” single, as three of the four contain a mere two tracks apiece and fall short of the half-hour marker.
Allen’s long, repetitive grooves aren’t a world away from what Miles Davis was looping around in the early 70s (his “On The Corner” album especially), except here you exchange wah-wah trumpet for vocal social commentary. Typically, it’s all minor keys, chiming guitars and Allen’s hypnotic, indestructible beat underpinning the whole. The first three albums are produced by and played by the band of Fela Kuti. “Progress” makes concessionary moves towards an African vision of “Saturday Night Fever”, its horn charts not completely unlike something the young John Travolta might bust a move to. The compilation’s title track is predictably kinetic, in intention if not in sound a kind of African version of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”, both sharing a kind of unstoppable rhythm. During his drum solo on “African Message” Allen takes the listener on a guided tour of his rhythm method. Later works such as “No Accommodation For Lagos”, “No Discrimination” and “Road Safety” edge into protest, not necessarily a dead cert career move in the Nigeria of the late 1970s. The final album included here, “No Discrimination”, was the first Allen recorded outside Kuti’s sphere of influence, with his own band the Afro Messengers, and the difference is immediately apparent. For a start, there’s twice the number of tracks on the album (a high-value four!), something Fela wouldn’t have allowed. The music is noticeably warmer and richer, the instrumental interweaving including synthesisers for the first time. It’s here that the listener can start to draw parallels with Talking Heads circa “Remain In Light”; closer “Love Is A Natural Thing” edges closer to conventional pop song structure…although it’s still not very close.
If you can discount the can’t-be-bothered packaging and are open to a little musical horizon-broadening, “Afro Disco Beat” is most definitely worth a punt.