Thursday, June 17, 2010

June 17: Tony Allen, "Black Voices"

Artist: Tony Allen
Song: "Black Voices"
Album: Black Voices
Year: 1999

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True musical geniuses never lose their talent, but sometimes they need a bit of a break to refocus and refresh their minds.  Whether it was Joe Strummer taking more than a decade away after ending The Clash or DEVO returning after nearly three times that length, those whose souls feed on music always return to aid in reshaping the musical landscape.  After the tragic passing of Fela Kuti, drummer extraordinaire Tony Allen took a similar hiatus, and when he returned, he proved to be just as strong, and gave the world some of the most progressive and musically stunning work of his storied career.  Without question, the highpoint of his post-Fela catalog was his 1999 record, Black Voices, which crosses over so many musical boundaries that it is impossible to name them all.  A group effort in every sense of the word, Allen found himself surrounded with some of the most innovative, talented, and energetic musicians on the planet, and the sounds and moods they created as a group represent the pinnacle of what can happen when such talent is properly focused.  Each of the tracks on Black Voices explode with positive energy and irresistible grooves, yet there are also social criticisms and observations running underneath the stunning musical arrangements.  Taking the core of the AfroBeat sound that he helped to create, on Black Voices, Tony Allen fuses it together with funk, jazz, and elements of electronica, and the resulting product is as special and unique a record as has ever been released.  With the 10th anniversary of the record yielding a re-release containing the "raw" tracks from the session, there are few tracks that better define everything that was magic about the Black Voices session than the title track of the original 1999 release.

It is on “Black Voices” where the true teamwork of all of the musicians involved becomes most clear.  While Tony Allen lays down one of the finest rhythms of his career, it is as if each musician found their own, individual groove within the larger sound they create together.  From the brilliant keyboards of Fixi to the warm bass of Caesar Anot, “Black Voices” has an absolutely stunning tone that cannot be found anywhere else in music history.  The keys and bass weave around one another in grand fashion, making “Black Voices” one of the most irresistible dance grooves ever recorded.  Yet underpinning their work is the complex rhythms that Allen brings, proving that he was without question the spirit behind the recordings of Fela Kuti.  As he effortlessly switches tempos and takes off-beat pauses, one can feel the enjoyment he clearly had whilst recording the track, and it helps to push the mood to amazing heights.  Though it is a fantastically funky groove in its "pure" state, the modern flare that Doctor L brings to the mix makes "Black Voices" a song that truly defies categorization.  Spinning dub sounds and subtle sound effects over the track, Doctor L morphs "Black Voices" into a track that could even fit in within a dance club setting, and it turns the song into an absolute musical anomaly.  While attempting to blend the old and new together is not all that rare an occurrence, it rarely works as brilliantly as it does on "Black Voices," and it is even more impressive when one takes into account that at the time of its recording, Allen was sixty years old.  Furthermore, the fact that Tony Allen chose to push forward with new musical ideas when he could have just as easily stuck with the sound that made him famous serves as a testament to both his talent and integrity as a performer.

Adding to the group element as well as bringing a vast amount of musical knowledge and experience, the duo of Michael "Clip" Payne and Gary "Mudbone" Cooper handle the amazing vocals that are staggered across the track.  Furthermore, though they hailed from completely different ends of the musical spectrum, Payne and Cooper shared a common ground with Allen in that they had all paid their dues in support of a prominent frontman.  Payne and Cooper both spent many years within the ranks of Parliament-Funkadelic, and their ability to find the ideal spot and style to deliver the vocals pushed "Black Voices" to the brink of musical perfection.  From deep, almost growling words to soft whispers, both vocalists show a great amount of diversity in their delivery, and their voices truly become an instrument onto themselves.  Again, from the manner with which they are singing, it becomes instantly clear that they too are having a blast performing on the track, as there is a joy within their vocals that cannot be denied. There is perhaps no aspect of the music where the personality of each musician becomes more clear, as the small touches which both vocals place into "Black Voices" show the high level of dedication and love that they had for the song and record.  It is also within the words they sign that the entire ethos behind the album, both in and out of the studio, rings through.  The idea of "black voices everywhere" can be seen within the makeup of the band, and at the same time, the music crosses into so many genres and cultures that the song itself becomes a common place for all of the various cultures to come together.  This is perhaps the finest representation of the combined genius on "Black Voices," in that while making a song they all could take ownership of, they gifted the world with a universal anthem.

When an artist or group are making music for "the right reasons," the joy they have in recording comes through clearly on the album.  Looking back on the sessions for Tony Allen's Black Voices record, Michael "Clip" Payne said, “…it wasn’t a record where we thought about having a hit...we just all wanted to play with each other.”  In many ways coming off as a "jam session," the energy and spirit behind the record are perfectly captured on the title track, and it remains one of the most uniquely fantastic recordings in music history.  Led by the distinctive and almost free-form playing of Allen, the rest of the band puts their own stamp on the song whilst simultaneously creating a whole that is far larger than the sum of its parts.  Smashing together the "old school" styles of AfroBeat with the fundamentals of funk, then given a healthy dose of electronic music, there are few songs that can be seen as kindred to the sounds of "Black Voices."  Mixing these elements together, the band truly created a completely new sound, and though some have tried to duplicate it, nothing since has even come close.  Throughout "Black Voices," while each band member performs with the utmost precision, there remains a very loose feeling to the entire track, and it is juxtapositions such as this that make the song so special.  Seeming to pick up right where he left off decades earlier, Tony Allen leads from behind, using his uncanny drumming ability to turn 1999's Black Voices into an almost futuristic musical experience, and the title track spotlights everything that makes this combined effort so magnificent and important to the present and future of music.

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