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An Autobiography of the MASTER DRUMMER OF AFROBEAT
By TONY ALLEN, MICHAEL E. VEAL
Duke University Press Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
RIGHT IN THE CENTER OF LAGOS
I was born Tony Oladipo Allen in Lagos on July 20, 1940, and I grew up in the area called Lafiaji, right in the center of Lagos Island. My family lived at number 15, Okusuna Street. Lafiaji was a good area. It was very near to what we called the Race Course in those days. Today they call it Tafewa Balewa Square. King's College is in that area, too. Later on, my family moved to Ebute-Metta, on the mainland.
My father's name was James Alabi Allen. He was a Nigerian, a Yoruba from Abeokuta. We don't exactly know how the name "Allen" came into my father's family, but it's probably a slaver's name. It must have come either from my great-grandfather or from his own father, because one of them was among those people rescued by the British slave patrols in Sierra Leone. Many of the slaves that were taken from Nigeria and rescued by the slave patrols—especially the Egbas that were taken from Abeokuta—they would drop them in Sierra Leone. That's why today my father's family still has a place in Sierra Leone. I remember that once when I was arriving in Britain, the immigration officer looked at me suspiciously and asked where I got the name "Allen." I just looked at him and laughed and told him, "I wish I could know my real name. Because the name 'Allen' is coming from you guys. You gave me my name, historically, so why are you asking me where I got this name from?" He kept his mouth shut after that.
My father's father, Adolphus Allen, was a prominent man in Lagos. Allen Avenue in Ikeja is named after him. I don't know too much about him because I was only two years old when he died. What I do know is that he was a clergyman who founded a church called Bethel Cathedral, which is on Broad Street on Lagos Island. Before that he was a policeman, and he must have passed through some hard things working with the white guys back then, because it was his will that none of his children would become policemen, and none of them did. My grandfather also owned a big piece of farmland in Ikeja, on the outskirts of Lagos. That land was later sold by my father and his brothers to the Lagos State government, and the government built the Airport Hotel on it. It was also part of that land, but on the other side of Obafemi Awolowo Way, that my father sold to Fela years later. In the old times, that was the smaller part of the farm.
My mother's name was Prudentia Anna Mettle. She was born in Lagos as one of the daughters of the Ghanaian settlers in those days. Her parents and grandparents had settled in Nigeria way back, probably in the 1800s. My mother's mother was from Keta, Ghana. So my mother spoke Ga and Ewe, and believe it or not, she could even speak Yoruba better than my father! As for me, I grew up in Lagos speaking Ga, Ewe, and Yoruba. In those times, most of the Ghanaian settlers were fishermen, and they lived on Victoria Island. Back in the old days, Victoria Island was a real fishermen's village. Think about environments like Hawaii with all the beaches and fishermen's huts—that is what Victoria Island was like before they developed it into what it is today.
There were six of us children in all, and I am the oldest one. The one right under me is my brother Adebisi. He's an aeronautics engineer, working for British Airways in London and Lagos. The next one after him is my brother Olatunji, who is a civil servant in London. After him is my brother Olukunmi, who is a doctor in London. After Olukunmi is my sister Jumoke, who is a head nurse in Boston, in the United States. And the baby of us all is my sister Enitan, who is a trader in Lagos, in the market. I also have a half-brother from my father. He's called Tunde and he's a mechanic in Germany. Since I myself have been in Paris for twenty-five years, you can see that we have all spread out from Nigeria, across the world.
We all have Yoruba names, but since our mother was from Ghana, we each have a Ghanaian name too. For example, my brother Adebisi is also called Kofi, and my sister Enitan is also called Afi. As for me, there are people in Lagos today who still know me as Kwame, because I was born on a Saturday and that's the customary name in Ghana if you were born on that day. My family on my mother's side all call me Kwame.
Maybe being a "dual breed" like that is why I've always done my own thing. I've always been independent. Like when it comes to clothes, I'm somebody that always liked dressing casually, ever since I was young. I simply like casual dressing. But it was the pride of all my colleagues I was growing up with to have these fancy Yoruba attires, these big agbadas and all that stuff. If you want to talk about our own traditional Yoruba clothing, you have to have about three layers to put on, maybe four. First you put on the normal singlet (sleeveless undershirt) underneath, for the perspiration. Then you put on the one called buba. That's the one with short sleeves. After that you put dansiki on top, which is the third layer. And still, you must put agbada on top of that. Then it's complete. And some people can even put some lighter materials on top of that! That's the tradition. Even all of my brothers love it. But for me, I prefer to pick what I like, dress casually, and go by my own style. I mean, dressing is not really part of what I think about. I can dress elegantly if I want to. But I'm not really putting a lot of energy into styles and all that. I just want to be comfortable, that's all.
But the Yorubas are really into conformity. For example, every time when there is any occasion, like a funeral or whatever, they have to celebrate and throw a big party. And every group at the party has to have very specific garments. Like maybe this side is the mother's side of family. The family will tell them that they should dress in a certain style. And then on the father's side, they will tell them to choose another style. The family will bring the sample cloth out to the family and tell you, "This is what we are choosing for the occasion and this is how much it costs." It's not like here in the West, where you can just put on a regular suit for any occasion. You have to have the garments made in a certain style, and every section of the family has to wear the same stuff. That means it's gonna cost you to be at that party, because you have to get this stuff made. And then you only use it that one time. For a different occasion, you have to get a whole new set of clothes made. If it's not a funeral, it's a newborn baby. If it's not a newborn baby, it's a wedding. If it's not a wedding, it's the opening of a new house. And some people don't even have all this fucking money! They have to go borrow this money, just to be part of this occasion. I never played this game, man. It's one game I detested completely from home.
In the old days, I always preferred to go for the normal English suit, without the tie. And after a while, even the suit itself became a big problem for me, because it was becoming too heavy in the climate. It was like punishment for me in that climate. You know what I mean? I felt like I couldn't handle that. That's why back in the '70s, I was dressing with the jeans with the short cutoff vest. Sometimes I would come into Fela's house and he would look at me and say, "Allenko, you know what you look like? You look like those ones in the North that drive the cows. Like a cowboy! It's the cowboys that dress like this." He was trying to tell me that I looked "bush." And I would tell him, "Well, as long as it looks nice on me, I don't care. I love it like this!" It's just that I always had my own outlook, even before I got into music. That's my basic personality. I like to be myself. And I wouldn't have made my own way in life if I wasn't like that.
I grew up fast because I was the oldest one. I took care of all my brothers and sisters, especially the two right behind me. My mother let me do that from the age of about eight. Sometimes I used to sit in the kitchen with her and the other housewives from the neighborhood, and I would cook right along with them. The other housewives were a little jealous of that. They always used to tell my mother that she was spoiling me and that I wouldn't respect women in the future if I could do their work for them. But it was good for me because I've always been a good cook and have always been able to take care of myself. I wasn't really brought up with Nigerian cooking, because I was brought up by a Ghanaian mother. On the other hand, my father was a Nigerian, a Yoruba guy from Abeokuta, and he had his own way of eating, which he could have preferred. But my mother did the cooking, and she had to satisfy my father. He must be able to enjoy his dinner, and I never heard him complain a day in his life. That tells you something about my mother's cooking! And that's why for me, I am cooking more on the Ghanaian side than the Nigerian side. The Ghanaians have their own approach to recipes, which is different from the Nigerians. Different ingredients. So if I say I want to cook African food, you'll really be having two things in one—part Nigerian, part Ghanaian.
When I was eighteen, my mother left and went to Ghana for a while, and took Jumoke and Olukunmi with her. That left me to take care of the house and the rest of the kids. I was cooking for everybody, even my father. He used to go to work and leave money for me to buy food, because he couldn't even fry an egg! So I did everything around the house for a year and a half, until my mother came back.
I was even driving from around the age of thirteen. But the way I started is a real story! You see, my father specialized in automobiles, and he used to have jobs at home sometimes, because people would bring their cars to him instead of taking them to the workshop, where they knew they would be charged much more for the workmanship and the materials. So this particular day, one guy was supposed to come and collect his car while my father was at work. And because the kids were on midterm holidays, I was at home. My father gave me the keys to the car and told me that if this guy came, I should give him the keys so he could take his car.
On that particular day the car was right in front of the house, and the sun was really hot. But there was a big tree right across the street, in front of the Catholic school. So this guy from the neighborhood who was kind of like a big brother to me—I was thirteen and this guy was maybe like twenty-five—he came to tell me that there was too much sun on the car and that I should move the car under the tree. I didn't know anything about driving cars, nothing at all. But since he was a grown-up and I was only thirteen, I couldn't think quickly for myself to ask, "What the fuck is this guy telling me? The car is not suffering!"
So I just took the key and opened the door to the car. I thought I would start it and then try to put it in gear. But it was already in gear! The car took off, and there was no way I could control anything. I was just lucky that there was no oncoming car. I was able to cross to the other side of the street, but the trunk of that tree was right in front of a gutter, and I went toward there. I meant to stop under the tree, but—no way. And at the same time, there was a woman with a baby coming out of the maternity hospital that was just down the road. I brushed the woman with the car, and she fell into the open gutter with the baby in her hands. And the baby was just one week old!
Luckily for me, there was this guy pushing a hand truck or street cart, what we call omolanke. They used to use it to carry heavy loads on the road. The guy took off running, but he left his omolanke sitting there, and when I hit it, that was what stopped the car. Meanwhile, the woman was lying in the gutter with a one-week-old baby and a broken leg. They called for an ambulance and took her to the hospital. And then they called the traffic police. And of course the guy who told me to move the car had disappeared completely, and he didn't come back to the house until twelve o'clock in the night! The police came, parked the car properly, took me to the police station, and phoned my father. They couldn't put me in the cell because I was too young, so they put me behind the counter. When my father came they gave me bail and released me with him, but a court case was on now because that woman with the baby had been admitted into the hospital.
At the end of the day it was a Yoruba thing, and my father wanted to settle the police matter through the back door. But it took time on the police side, because it was a case for them. The charge was driving without a license, and reckless endangerment. They told my father that I should appear in the police station every morning before going to school. And this went on and on. Even after the holidays it continued. We even went there on Saturdays. It was really just a matter of corruption, because my father had to pay them some money every time we went.
My father was trying to pay to scrap the case, but it wasn't that easy because the big guys there were white men and you couldn't just scrap a court case like that. On the other hand, if they found out that I drove a car, I might have ended up in welfare (i.e., child services). Finally, the police told us that we had to see the inspector, who was an Igbo guy. My father gave money to this inspector, and they still didn't scrap the case. They were still making us come every morning, and my father was still paying. And we weren't even going to the station anymore, but to the house of the inspector in the barracks!
Luckily for us, this white sergeant came in one day and said, "I see these people here every day—what is the problem? What are the charges against them?" The inspector told him that I had pushed an omolanke into a woman and the woman fell into a gutter. He said it like that because he wanted to keep taking money from us every day, but if he told them I drove a car they might take me and put me into welfare. So the sergeant said, "This boy pushed a hand truck? What the hell is he doing here!?" And he told my father that from then on, we shouldn't come back there anymore. So, luckily for me, I got out of that one!
This was one time that I thought my father was coming to eliminate me completely. I thought I'd be dead! But he never touched me! I think it was because he never looked at it like something normal that I would do on my own, 'cause I had explained everything to him. I was not even thinking that the car was in the sun. This guy came to put it in my head and I fell for it because I didn't have my own thinking cap in order at that time. And the day that all this shit happened, they were looking for the guy 'til about midnight. He never even came back home to his own family to eat. Everybody was waiting for him, so he came back in the middle of the night and he had to face his own family that were asking him, "What the fuck have you done!?" My father understood what was going on. He was not a wicked guy, he was a very nice guy. He would never think to beat us unless our mother reported us to him.
My mother was Catholic and very, very religious. When I was very young she sent me to a Catholic school called St. Paul's, in Ebute-Metta. I was serving on the altar with the reverend fathers every Sunday, and it seemed like I was bowing to everything. But as soon as I left school, that was it. I seldom go to church as an adult, and if I do decide to go, I might fall asleep in the middle of the mass, because I probably will have just finished playing in a club on Saturday night and gone to church directly from there. It's not that I don't believe in God. I believe in God, but I rarely go to church.
So I must be a bit like my father. He was a Protestant, but this is a guy that I never saw put his feet in the church. My mother was the only one going to church. I remember that when I was six, the reverend fathers and reverend sisters came to our house to preach to my father. Even if he wouldn't convert, they were preaching to him that he should come and marry my mother in the Catholic church. It took some time, but later he agreed to do it. That was the only day I ever saw his feet in a church.
But he was a guy who prayed every day. He had a Bible and he used to wake us up to pray the Psalms every morning before he went to work. It was just that he didn't want to deal with all the politics of the church. If you're not attending church regularly and you die, they won't bury you, but he used to say he didn't give a shit about that. He always told us that when he died, we should just throw his body onto the street because we would just be dealing with the body, not the real him! That was always his joke. And years later, when he died, we did have to go and wrestle with the church and pay a certain amount for all his back dues so that he could get a proper burial.
Excerpted from TONY ALLEN by TONY ALLEN, MICHAEL E. VEAL. Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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