The Afrobeat star may be 70 years of age, but is still limber enough to bring down the house
Only in Belfast can a man dance like a space invader and still not spill his pint, but that’s what Tony Allen’s music does to you: gets you into your groove. The audience at the Mandela Hall is electrified by the high octane rhythms of Allen’s Afrobeat - music that grabs you by the necessaries and forces you to move. For an audience spanning the entire spectrum of middle age, that has to be a good thing.
Allen is a mesmerising and intense figure behind his drums. It’s not the largest of kits and he isn’t the loudest or most flamboyant of drummers, but he is a powerful presence nonetheless. There are seven other musicians on-stage, including a showboating guitarist and an attention-seeking horn section, but all eyes are on Allen.
Lauded by Brian Eno as ‘perhaps the greatest drummer ever,’ Allen fuses jazz, funk and African beats to create a seemingly effortless but incredibly complex style. Nigerian-born, Allen originated the sound in the pioneering band Africa '70, along with charismatic singer and political activist Fela Kuti.
Fela’s life story is now told in the musical Fela! running on Broadway, co-produced by Will and Jada Smith and Jay-Z, and soon to run at the National Theatre London. The musical will no doubt spark even greater interest in Allen, although anyone who’s anyone already wants a piece of him. Collaborations in recent years have included Damon Albarn, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Air, and at 70 years of age Allen shows no sign of slowing down. He plays tonight for two hours straight.
Allen’s vocals are low and hypnotic and he is accompanied by an energetic female singer who whips the audience into frenzied participation, a bassist who slaps and pops on five strings, keyboards, two guitarists and stabbing, dancing horns. Over the course of the performance, we’re treated to extended pieces of jazz-funk and Afrobeat. I’m not one for drum solos but an hour in we get one and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
When trying to wind things down, Allen asks, ‘What comes after the beginning?’ Knowing we are supposed to say, ‘The end,’ then comes the reply, ‘The middle!’ Naturally, the crowd wants more and kindly, the Afrobeat star obliges with a long jamming encore, with every groove gratefully received. Allen seems genuinely surprised at the reception and describes the Belfast movers as ‘some of the grooviest people around'.
The crowd cheers wildly when Allen says he will be back and next time he ‘will be bigger'. I wonder if he means the 30-strong band he recently played with at the Barbican. If he’s true to his word, we will all be back. I have no doubt, there will be more of us too.