Aaron Matthews doesn’t discriminate, he regulates every shade of that….
Tony Allen had a lot on his mind in 1979. Recorded shortly after his split with Fela Kuti, he recorded his first solo album with a crack band comprised of expatriate Africa ‘70 players. No Discrimination imagines an even more global reach for afrobeat– it places the nascent genre within the context of American funk and the circular electronic rhythms of Krautrock. The album’s themes of racism, social revolt, love and even road safety are kin to those of JB, Sly, Clinton and Curtis. The alternately terse and loping guitar on the title track could have been played by Fred Wesley, but the blaring, ebullient horn charts are all Fela. The central rhythms of these songs are shadowed by buzzing analog synths that show Allen’s attentive ear to European electronica. Check the wonderful duet between the synths and the undulating percussion and terse guitar in the last two minutes of “No Discrimination.”
The hypnotic “Ariya” knits a dense musical fabric, orbiting around a winding guitar riff. Shuddering organ, piano, blurting horns and squelching synths hover around the central beat.“Love Is A Natural Thing” begins with lamenting synths and elegant jazz-like guitar figures, before giving way to an almost Ramones drumbeat. It segues into a loping, contagious rhythm, as circular trumpets herald the coming of free love. When Allen croons, “Give me your sugar boom boom”, it simultaneously sounds like a come-on, an honest request and a call to action. No mean feat.
No Discrimination fascinates because it strips the expansiveness from the Afrobeat sound that Allen minted with Fela, while integrating influences from across the ocean – -some likely (James Brown already being a big influence on Allen’s Fela work) and others less so (Kraftwerk’s synthesized sound). It combines the syncopated guitar and social focus of American funk and the synthesizers of Kraftwerk. But there’s not a motorik rhythm in sight. 4/4 is restricting, after all. Allen’s polyrhythms leave a lot of room to build. The warning-line horns on “Road Safety”’ portend an important message, before skeletal riffs and infectious cowbell anchor Allen’s caution to drivers. It’s as danceable as it is practical.
No Discrimination predicted both Afrobeat’s omnivorous musical appetite and the malleability of the genre years before African music became American pop music. Who would have guessed that the Western world was as ready for African music as Nigeria was for Western music? Graceland went quintuple platinum just seven years later by pairing the reassuring murmur of Paul Simon with Zulu music played by South African musicians. Just over two decades after Simon’s album, Vampire Weekend’s cadre of multiracial middle class hit #1 on three different continents by fusing punk-pop with Afro-pop. “Importation and exportation, now here we want” was one of Tony Allen’s many requests back in ’79 in a plea for no discrimination. While every other nervy white kid copped a King Sunny Ade record for inspiration, he got what he wanted.–Matthews