Tony Allen, the legendary one-time skinsman for Fela Kuti, is a great drummer. That’s evident on this CD, even though it wouldn’t seem to be the case by some normal measures. The 69-year old Nigerian’s patterns can get intricate, but they’re not fast or especially crisp, and once you’re a few tracks into this CD some of the same moves start reappearing.
However, the grooves he plays are great. The quality comes from his attack on the snare, the shoves from the hi-hat, the gliding fills across the toms while he heads to the ride cymbal. He has mastered the trick of creating a musical personality out of a combination of stick and footwork on drumheads, cymbals and pedals. Not an easy task.
Secret Agent is designed to highlight this. Since Allen is a groove drummer, his strategy was to assemble a good groove band. The lyrics are a pleasant, though rarely remarkable, mix of calls for celebration and mild protests about there being “too many prisoners” and the like. The vocals are a nice mix of male and female, solo and chorus, and the players are talented, although no one overshadows the drums. The minor-key, subdued nature of most of the vamps is also appealing, as are the spontaneous, ragged endings of a few songs, in an era where so many dance discs are suffocatingly micromanaged. And the accordion is a distinctive touch.
In the end, though, Secret Agent is mainly for students of great drumming. And, although he’s been at it for a while, Allen proves that he’s still capable of teaching a valuable lesson.