Lock yourself into the beat, but don’t become prisoner to it. The techno pioneer Jeff Mills understands that only too well. “Not being tied to other musicians when using a drum machine and electronics live can be a liberating experience,” he explains. “Because we aren’t strapped together by some master tempo clock, I’m able to play my instruments and speak with the machine, not just program a pattern and press play. It was important to have devised this technique so that I could meet Tony creatively. We each do our thing, but we can do it together.”
In his quest to liberate himself from the tyranny of the sequencer, Mills couldn’t wish for a better partner than the father of Afrobeat. Many consider Tony Allen to be one of the greatest drummers alive. In the last thirty years, his signature mix of Nigerian roots, polyglot jazz and no-fuss funkiness - delivered with both absolute looseness and absolute precision - has spread like a virus around the world, infecting the work of artists as diverse as Damon Albarn, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Moritz Oswald.
Jeff Mills is a titan of the electronic dance scene and a tireless innovator, who helped to give birth to the 1980s Detroit techno scene before going on to compose electro symphonies, soundtracks and sonic odysseys inspired by futurism and space travel, working with visual artists, choreographers, classical orchestras, even astronauts. His collaboration with Tony Allen is another rhythmic conversation in a long and well-established discourse, but a special one too. “We’re working together to achieve something bigger than the both of us,” he says. “It really is a pure collaboration, not just through music, but in our minds and spirit as well.”
The same goes for Tony Allen. He has already collaborated with quite a few electro artists during his long career but this is something else. “The difference is that Jeff can play with me, whereas the others cannot play with me. I can only play with them, but they cannot play with me…yunastan?”
It all comes down to finding the ‘one’. Raised on the raw complexity of traditional West African drumming and its sophisticated reinterpretation by the be-bop drummers of 1940s and 50s America (“He was sending back what was coming from my place…polishing it” Allen says of his hero Art Blakey), Tony discovered long ago that the ‘one’ can show up in the most surprising places. “With Jeff it’s easy,” he says. “I told him that sometimes the pattern is on my kick. And sometimes I might put the one on the snare. He knows where the one is. He can count.”
As for Jeff Mills, the most important lesson he has learned from Tony is that “the one is everywhere.”
The pair first shared a stage in December 2016, at the New Morning in Paris. Their live show shows have become a rhythm summit without equal, a chance to witness two of the world’s most innovative beat-makers, supplemented by the Moogs and synths of Jean-Philippe Dary, fusing past and future into an intense, seamless present where digital and analogue, jazz and electro, Africa and America, the source and the delta, become one. “I think, maybe, we have done something that wasn’t there before,” Tony admits.
Could African music be the future of music, as Damon Albarn once claimed? “It depends,” says Jeff. “In the short term, maybe. But thousands of years from now? No. [By then], the individual might exist outside of the current boundaries of continent and countries. Each person might be a sovereign state of their own design, free from geographic borders and ethnicity. They’ll just be from Earth, while others are from Mars.”
“Africa is full of music, you know,” Tony says, “FULL OF MUSIC! Because we speak in different languages and we have different cultures, and every culture in Africa has music. It’s not like the West, you know, when they go for a particular style, and everybody follows that…no. Everybody has his own thing.”
In some ways Allen and Mills have already fashioned their own sovereign self-designed state, one where improvisation, creativity and instinct reign. It’s rooted in Africa, yes, but like the music of Art Blakey, it goes beyond Africa, beyond America, beyond the force-fields of history and the structures of technology.
“We’re currently living in an age where it easier to find answers and facts,” says Mills, “and that can be exciting when so much information is at your fingertips. But I think there’s cause for caution in our quest to become more perfect. We might begin to think that the human ability is obsolete - not good enough, and therefore not acceptable. As we move on and evolve further, human desire will change. Most personal machinery will become invisible in our everyday lives. Nature will reclaim the Earth, humans will have to learn to adapt, or try to leave this place. The planet spins regardlessly.”
Meanwhile, here on this spinning platter, nature is reclaiming the beat and machinery is become less visible, less imposing. Truth is, no one can predict the future, just as they can’t predict where any piece of music played by Tony Allen and Jeff Mills will take them. That’s all the excitement - to get on board with two of the world greatest living masters of rhythm, set the controls for the heart of their spinning world, and boldly go into the unknown.