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 playmy 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.