Yet it’s quickly apparent in conversation with the Nigerian-born hero of Afrobeat that he’s far from ready to lay down his drum sticks just yet.
He refuses even to dwell on past glories or career highlights. “I don’t think it’s the end,” he says in deep measured tones. “I’m still looking forward all the time. Backward? No. You look forward to doing what things appeal to you.”
His latest album, Secret Agent, is as a lively and downright funky as any in his 40-year catalog.
It was partially recorded in Paris and partially in the Nigerian capital, Lagos.
“I decided to do it in both places,” he says. “The previous one before, that was all done in Lagos, but it was not easy to promote because I cannot get the personnel from Lagos all the time.”
Allen brings is about to take his band to Britain for a six-date tour and much has been made in the advance publicity about the trip coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from colonialist Britain. Allen himself sees little connection or particular cause to celebrate. “I don’t live in Nigeria in the first place,” he says. “Fifty years of independence, yes, but I don’t see the positive end.”
At 70, Allen accepts the need to keep in shape for the strenuous business of playing lengthy concerts. “I do what’s necessary,” he says. “It’s part of my life; it’s what I live on. You’ve got to be fit all the time, like footballers have to be fit to be on the field.”
Yet, he admits, with long years of experience, dating back to Fela Kuti’s band in the 1960s, he no longer needs to put endless hours of rehearsal in. “I don’t need to drum every day,” he says. “(Only] every week.”
Allen still describes the late Fela Kuti, pioneer of Afrobeat music and vociferous critic of Nigeria’s military junta, who jailed and beaten for his human rights activism, in friendly terms, despite the fact that he walked out of his band, Africa 70, in 1978 in a dispute of royalties.
Whatever he may have contributed to Africa 70 – and many would argue his fusion of jazz, funk and African high-life rhythms was a significant factor in the band’s overall appeal – he still concedes Kuti was very much the boss. “Fela was the leader of the band,” he says. “He gave instructions and was fixing things. I’m holding on to my part of drumming and that was it.”
Of the famed meeting in 1970 between Kuti’s outfit and James Brown’s band, widely credited with changing the course of African music, Allen has his own view. It was the Nigerians, he feels, who taught American musicians such as Bootsy Collins a trick or two. “They tried (to play the same as us],” he says, “but to implement what we wrote, the dance rhythms I did, they never had it.”