Sam’s Jams: The Beat Behind Afrobeat

How drummer Tony Allen helped create the Afrobeat sound


Artist: Fela Kuti (and drummer Tony Allen)

Song: Fight To Finish

Afrobeat is a genre of music that combines elements of West African musical styles such as Fuji music and Highlife with American funk, soul, and jazz influences. Its roots can be traced back to Ghana in the 1920s when musicians started incorporating influences like the foxtrot and calypso with traditional Ghanaian rhythms. But the Afrobeat that is most recognized today originated in Lagos, Nigeria in the late 1960s. Fela Kuti was a bandleader, composer, saxophonist, and keyboardist, who formed the group Africa ’70. The band blended Highlife music with American forms of music like jazz, funk and soul of the time. Fela and his new band performed this music at a club he established called the Afrika Shrine. The band maintained a five-year residency at the Afrika Shrine from 1970 to 1975 while Afrobeat thrived among Nigerian youth.

Afrobeat wouldn’t be what it is without drummer Tony Allen. Allen got his start with Fela in 1964 when Fela invited him to audition for a jazz-highlife band. Fela liked Allen’s sound and said “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?” After that, the two musicians continued to collaborate. Allen became Fela’s drummer and recorded over 30 albums with the Africa ’70 band. Allen co-founded the band and the style with Fela. Fela once said, “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.”

I had the chance to record Tony Allen during a session here in Detroit. When I began to setup, I asked him how he preferred his mics placed, hoping he would give me some insight on how those classic albums were recorded. He shrugged and didn’t say much. When he began playing, he was playing so softly that I thought he was just warming up; his sound was so huge on the Fela records that I didn’t think he was actually playing for real. I found myself turning up the microphones higher than I was used to, to get proper sound levels. After a few minutes, he told me to play it back over the speakers. Instantly, I heard that sound I was used to. I couldn’t believe that all these years I thought he was banging loudly on the drums, only to find out that the iconic sound came from a sensitive touch.

Sam’s Jams is the weekly song selection of WDET’s creative producer Sam Beaubien, a longtime Detroit musician who also helms the soul-funk band Will Sessions.

From 70 years ago to contemporary releases today, Sam’s Jams is the musical equivalent of digging for hours in dusty record store bins to find forgotten-but-should-be-remembered deep cuts pulled from the genres of funk, jazz and soul genres.


  • Sam Beaubien
    Sam Beaubien is a musician, composer, producer, and educator in Detroit. He is also the founder and leader of the acclaimed ensemble, Will Sessions.