Monday, December 14, 2009

December 14: Tony Allen, "Black Voices"

Artist: Tony Allen
Album: Black Voices
Year: 1999
Label: Comet

While many people know the age old saying, "behind every great man is a great woman," many people seem to ignore the fact that in nearly every case, behind every great frontman, there are at least two or three equally fantastic musicians in the backing band. Whether it was Page behind Plant, Hancock behind Davis, or Wesley and Collins behind James Brown, throughout all of music history, some of the finest musicians were those who "made the greats great." However, once one steps away from commercially successful music, while the theory is still the same, one must often dig a bit deeper to see this trend. Throughout the entire history of music, the idea of "greats behind greats" has perhaps been no more apparent than when one looks at the brilliant rhythm sections of AfroBeat master, Fela Kuti. While Fela himself remains today one of the most amazing and influential musicians in history, without question one of the key factors to his music was the presence of one of the greatest drummers in history, Tony Allen. As the musical director for Kuti's Africa '70 for more than a decade, it was Allen who constructed and led the band on many of Kuti's most famous songs, and Allen's work as a performer, leader, and songwriter remain largely unrivaled. Having released a massive amount of work on his own, Tony Allen completely rewrote the books on what was possible within the AfroBeat genre with his stunning 1999 album, Black Voices.

While at first, the album seems to follow the time tested pattern of AfroBeat, it quickly begins to move into uncharted waters, as Allen is out to prove that one can take the old sound and seamlessly integrate it with new musical forms. The fact that such wild musical innovation was coming from Allen is truly stunning, when one takes into account that by this point, he was sixty years old, and for someone so established in a sound to attempt such a radical musical change, it is almost incomprehensible. The music itself is truly like nothing else before it, as Allen takes the classic AfroBeat sound and fuses it together with a dub and "DJ" sound that is as modern as one can get. This hybrid music that Allen creates actually began in the mid-1980's, when he was living in Paris, and recording with a wide range of artists, most notably, King Sunny Adé. It was during these years that Allen began to work on bringing together elements as wide ranging as electronica, dub, and hip-hop with his AfroBeat sound, and in many ways, Black Voices represents the culmination of these experiments. In fact, this album was only the second that Allen released after virtually disappearing from the music scene for more than a decade, and it is clear that he spent the "away time" working on truly gaining a greater understanding of music. Keeping things as simple as possible, aside from Céasar Aont on bass, Black Voices is entirely played by only two performers, Allen and the man named "Doctor L."

When one steps back and considers exactly "what" is going on throughout Black Voices, it is quite mind boggling, as it is almost impossible to associate a minimalist, electronic feel with the massive walls of sound which Allen was known to create. Yet these walls of sound and hypnotic rhythms are still very present, yet they gain an entirely new feel due to the presence of Allen's collaborator on Black Voices. Call him a DJ, call him a turn-tablist, call him whatever you like, but the truth of the matter is, Doctor L is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, as well as one of the finest collaborators with whom Tony Allen has ever worked. Throughout Black Voices, Doctor L takes the mesmerizing rhythms and musical progressions that Allen creates and he spins them into a stunningly modern sound, filling them with bright organ lines, as well as placing the occasional clavinet and more formal "dub DJ" effects. Such juxtaposition between an old and new sound has never sounded so exciting, and every single song on Black Voices is just as brilliant as the next, creating one of the finest, purest "groove" albums ever recorded. Doctor L plays nearly every instrument that Allen does, and this ability to have a second unquestionably skilled multi-instrumentalist is clearly one of the keys, and perhaps one of the main factors that led Allen to end his decade-long hiatus from recording.

While Doctor L's work throughout Black Voices is truly fantastic, it is clear that the genius behind the album lies within the mind of Tony Allen. Though he may not have gotten the credit like that of Kuti, few will argue that Allen's work and playing is not just as important. In fact, Kuti was often quoted as saying, "...without Tony Allen, there would be no AfroBeat." It is not until one experiences Black Voices that one can fully appreciate the truth behind Kuti's statement, as the deep, soulful sounds that Allen creates on every track serve as proof that, while Kuti may have been the voice and the face of AfroBeat, it's hard to argue that Allen was anything less than the soul behind the sound. Creating some of the most heavily textured sounds in decades, Allen proves to still be in his musical prime, as the albums' opening track, "Asiko," is one of the most fantastic blends of high-tempo rhythmic hypnosis that remains unquestionably relaxed in mood. Presenting such stark juxtapositions was one of the keys to the success of the music of Kuti, and with Black Voices, it becomes clear that much of this was due to the efforts and talents of Allen. There are even clear forays into funk, as "Get Together" features as wonderfully murky bassline, along with absolutely brilliant "vocal jamming." There are so many musical styles present on Black Voices that it is often difficult to hear them all, and this in many ways is the magic behind the music of Tony Allen, as all of the sounds blend together into one single, beautiful groove.

Released a decade ago today, Tony Allen's Black Voices marked the "official" end of his thirteen year hiatus from the music scene. Though he had released an EP a year earlier, it was with Black Voices that Allen showed the world what he had spent the previous years exploring and developing. This "new" sound was truly like nothing else being made, and the sensational mixture of classic AfroBeat with a myriad of other genres and styles breathed new life into a music scene that was beginning to become rather stagnant. Teaming up with dub-master and multi-instrumentalist Doctor L, the presence of "young blood" clearly plays a great part in the albums' success, and it enables Allen to explore areas and ideas that would not have been possible under other circumstances. Blurring the line between genres like electronica, trip-hop, hip-hop, and AfroBeat, Black Voices presents a sound like nothing else anywhere in music, and the album simultaneously defines as well as perfects this new style of music. Few albums in history have so perfectly contrasted "old and new," as the bright keyboard lines throughout the album, combined with Allen's superb rhythms, are very reminiscent of his days within Africa '70, yet the electronic elements, as well as the clear dub sound give the entire record a wonderfully modern feel. Standing as one of the most important musicians in the creation of the AfroBeat genre, Tony Allen creates a second stunning sound as he fuses together the traditional sound he created more than three decades earlier with a fresh, modern sound on his absolutely stunning 1999 album, Black Voices.

Standout tracks: "Asiko," "Get Together," and "The Same Blood."

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