A cry rang out at the hour of Tony’s death. One name is all you need in order to remember the man who’s had numerous nicknames. Tony embodied the Afrobeat sound he’d created with Fela – an unrelenting rhythm fed by West African beats and African American cadences. With a sound recognisable to all, and which the drummer knew how to express in so many ways, he has inspired generations of musicians, from Lagos to Paris, from hip hop producers to improvisational jazz artists. Tony, masterful, self-taught, knew how to bring them all together.
And yet, this is not the least of the Nigerian musicians’ achievements, and it would be a pretty lame interpretation to see his work as world music with a hint of neo-colonialism. No, this music was born in the streets, from anger, between frenzies both good and bad. His musical scores came from the winding tropical quagmire of the enormous city of Lagos. They were created out of the ashes of colonialism, in the fires of the civil rights movement, at the very moment when trade and commerce became cruelly unbalanced between North and South. Afrobeat is the desire to overthrow everything, to challenge every heavily weighing cliché and prejudice. To bring everything to order.
Tony was the leading drummer of a musical revolution and was the musical director for Africa 70, though he quit just as international success beckoned. This group will forever be remembered as a beacon for Afrobeat, an alchemical mix that exploded onto the international music scene. In London and then in Paris, Tony infused his records and the records of others with this sound – his sound. Manu Dibango, Ray Lema, and more recently Oumou Sangaré have benefitted, relying on a turn of phrase that proves irresistible every time.
His fellow Africans, of every generation, weren’t the only ones to have recognised his greatness as a musician. Would “La Ritournelle” Sébastien Tellier’s heady hit have had the same addictive power were it not for Tony’s rhythmic phrasing? It’s no accident that lovers of the loop hold him up as a yardstick. The essence is groove – as much a way to dance as to heal the world. The list of those who drew inspiration from him is long, all of them managing to defy, as he had, the heavy expectations of others – something from which the drummer had always been able to free himself. His own work has been able to travel throughout the musical world without ever losing its originality, or sounding like some sort of quirky collage. Whether with his trendy young guard from London, a superlative trio from Sao Paulo, with jazz players of every stripe, or a disco combo from Naples, Tony has always been a unique jewel – singular yet many-faceted.