There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
It’s been a long time since Tony Allen was the engine that made Fela Kuti’s epic, trance-inducing tunes go. It’s also been a long time since listening to one of the Nigerian-born drummer’s songs took, well, a long time. Three decades ago, one of Africa 70’s polyrhythmic explorations could make your average prog-rock pseudo-symphony seem positively short-winded by comparison. But ever since leaving Fela’s legendary Afrobeat ensemble in 1979, Allen has demonstrated something of a short attention span. Solo efforts such as 1999’s Black Voices and 2002’s Home Cooking have moved restlessly from funk to dun to hip-hop, in the process drastically reducing run times. With the new Lagos No Shaking, the 60-something Allen seems set on returning to straight Afrobeat—albeit with songs that are no longer than six minutes and change. Built around horns, guitars, bass, and, of course, plenty of percussion, “Ise Nla” recalls the best of the drummer’s late-’70s output, its jigsaw groove and call-and-response vocals made all the catchier by their quick delivery. Similarly, the guitar-dominated “Aye Le” and the bass-heavy “Ole” both work well in short form, moving restively from one musical idea to another. It’s a different story with “One Tree,” however: Stripped down to basically drum and horns, the arrangement places undue emphasis on hippie-dippy lyrics worthy of Discovery Store envirozak (“One tree/Many roots/Many roots to one tree”). The most interesting track here, album-closer “Gbedn,” actually has the least to do with traditional Afrobeat. Featuring only percussion instruments and the odd sample or whistle, it’s as good an example as any in Allen’s oeuvre of why Brian Eno once referred to him as “the most important musician of the last 50 years”: Thumb pianos lock with traditional drums and shakers to create tight, propulsive patterns that don’t need an extra 15 minutes to hypnotize. Still, it’s probably the only thing on the new album that confounds expectations as much as those long-form voyages of the ’70s did. No matter how pleasant and precise Lagos No Shaking can be, it remains largely unsurprising—in terms of musical revelations per song, the count is much higher on a classic Allen two-tracker such as 1975’s Jealousy. Granted, you can’t travel back in time 30 years even in 20 minutes. But you can’t make a classic Afrobeat record without a little noodling, either.