Tony Allen (Africa Utopia)

Sunday 13th September 2015

Royal Festival Hall, London, United Kingdom

World music concerts tend to be well-received at this venue. The variety, warmth and excitement provided tonight out in my top three World music shows, ever. Like the mighty Rachid Taha – another South Bank Centre favourite – Allen features traditional African flavours and themes mixed in with edgy rock, rhythm & blues, funk, folk workouts and more. Beats rule, but are sometimes held back for effect.

Like Chris Layton the ex Stevie Ray Vaughan and Arc Angels drummer, now with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, a lot of the time Allen doesn’t appear to be doing too much. HOWEVER, just close your eyes and his polyrhythmic drumming makes your jaw drop. An amiable host, he seems determined to feature his guests tonight to their best advantage. This is the mark of a truly great musician : the ability to make others on the stage sound terrific. It just enhances one’s admiration for this Fela Kuti collaborator and international superstar.

One of the featured artists tonight is Blur /Gorillaz man Damon Albarn, singing a tad nervously and pounding an acoustic piano plus puffing a bit of melodica at points. Tony Allen clearly loves Albarn and what he brings to the show. Deftly switching moods and backdrops, Allen also makes purposeful French rapper Oxmo sound dramatic and emphatic, using the kind of acid-funk ambiance that the late Gil Scott Heron used to favour. With a Telecaster guitar player on our left chugging out a meaty take on Curtis Mayfield much of the time, a resourceful and enthusiastic keyboard player, an accomplished percussionist and a two-man horn section doubling, on laptop/keys Allen has a fine palate of colours to draw upon and wastes none of it. This is all part of the Southbank’s African Festival called ‘Africa Utopia’ and surely a highlight.

The kora is a beautiful stringed instrument – notes sprinkle and tumble out of a well-played kora establishing rhythms and melodies that intertwine, especially when two are in play and tonight we have the father and son pairing of legend Toumani Diabate and Sidiki Diabate. Cascading notes and rippling waves of sound are enhanced by junior’s subtle use of wah and delay. Enchanting and breathtaking, spontaneous applause from a seemingly knowledgeable audience warm the show even more, Allen looks delighted as he returns to the stage after a feature spot for the duo.

African musical alumnus Baba Maal had introduced the performance and came on with a female vocalist to stir the crowd still further. He is of course an ace singer and big personality and does his bit with his customary elan, urging the instrumental soloists to head skywards. Again to the drummer’s full and vocal approval.

Parts of the set are reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s HeadHunters ensemble; at other times a pure Donald Byrd-style trumpet break coasts out over the pattering beats. The moodier passages evoke the work of Wally Badarou. Titles are lacking in my notes (possibly ‘Running Away’, ‘Back to Square One’, ‘Cherry Cherry’, ’Does Anyone’? ) and not all pieces were clearly introduced, but with a set like this it doesn’t really matter. Variety, dynamics and punch were all present and correct. Allen refers to his music as ‘afrofunk’..I guess that will do, but it is rich beyond measure and exhilarating.

Pete Sargeant

(Thanks John G)