It’s business as usual and business, as usual, is pretty damn good.
Jon Lusk 2009
‘Mr Afrobeat’ returns, this time on the world’s leading world music label. Like his last album Lagos No Shaking, this was recorded in Allen’s old stomping ground, Lagos, the sprawling Nigerian megacity he refers to as ‘a complete mother****** of a place’. And, just as on that record, Allen is joined by several local guest vocalists. It’s business as usual and business, as usual, is pretty damn good.
The title may well refer to Allen’s famously spectral presence on his own albums, so ubiquitous but unobtrusive that he’s almost invisible when he’s right there in front of you. Although he is Africa’s most famous drummer, you won’t hear any drum solos on Secret Agent. But his kit is a constant presence driving the vibe, the trademark double-kick drum motif of Afrobeat criss-crossing with ting-tinging ride cymbals, gasping hi-hats, shuffling snares and those deceptively simple rolls on the toms that conclude a typical Tony Allen bar.
Gratifyingly, he book-ends the album with two of his own casually murmured lead vocals – partly a by-product of having to sing and play at the same time for much of his solo career. There are five other lead singers, most obviously Oribiyi Adunni a.k.a. AYO, whose sometimes strident vocals bring a contemporary R&B/soul diva flavour to Ijo, Nina Lowo, Ayenlo and Atuwaba.
The other most notable vocal presence is King Odudu, sounding as if he could easily be a member of Fela Kuti’s family on the slinky Celebrate and Pariwo. Despite the relaxed vibe of the latter, its militant Broken English lyrics (“culture, not torture”) continue Kuti’s Afrobeat tradition of speaking out against injustice. And the same is true of the ‘blaxploitation’-flavoured Elewon Po, which finds Allen protesting that there are “Too many prisoners”.
Secret Agent boasts some very tasty licks from Cameroonian guitarist Claude Dibongue, and especially sublime horn arrangements by co-producer Fixi, who also tinkers with Rhodes, keyboards, synths, trombone and accordion in a couple of places. Although Tony Allen is approaching his 70th birthday, Afrobeat’s co-creator isn’t resting on his laurels.