Drummer Tony Allen is the Juice in Rocket Juice and the Moon
James Brown, Fela Kuti, Victor Olaiya

James Brown, Fela Kuti and Victor Olaiya. Photos: Getty Images

The lineup of Rocket Juice & the Moon, whose self-titled debut album came out last week, includes a couple of very big alternative-rock names: Blur singer/guitarist Damon Albarn and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. Occasional guest singer Erykah Badu raises the brands-America-trusts factor. Here’s “Hey, Shooter,” on which Badu appears:

The other member of the band, drummer Tony Allen, might be less familiar if you haven’t paid close attention to Albarn’s career or to African music — Albarn sang “Tony Allen got me dancing” in the 2000 Blur single “Music Is My Radar,” and played with Allen on the 2007 album The Good, the Bad & the Queen.

Allen, though, is Rocket Juice’s rocket juice. He’s a percussion hero who’s been making records since before either of his bandmates were born, and his presence links the group to a lineage of relationships and inspirations that stretches back almost 60 years, even connecting to James Brown. From 1968 to 1979, Allen was the beat-master and musical director of Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti’s band Africa 70. And before either Allen or Fela were anybody’s idea of a marquee attraction, both of them played in the band led by Victor Olaiya, a.k.a. Dr. Victor Olaiya, a.k.a. Sir Victor Olaiya, “The Evil Genius of Highlife.”

Back in the ‘50s and ’60s, if you wanted to play club gigs in West Africa, you pretty much had to play highlife, the relaxed horns-and-guitars-based groove music that had been kicking around for decades. One of the champions of highlife in Nigeria in that era was Olaiya, a trumpeter who joined a band called the Cool Cats in 1954, and then took them over before long. Victor Olaiya and His Cool Cats, as they soon came to be known, made records like “Cool Cats’ Invitation” (below) in the mid-’50s: pretty straight-ahead highlife with a big trumpet solo by the bandleader.

One of the musicians Olaiya brought into his group was the young Fela Kuti, initially as a backing vocalist. Fela stayed with Olaiya for a few years, learning the ropes of highlife, before he moved to London to study music and start his own band. Back home in Nigeria in 1959, as Olaiya puts it in this highly entertaining personal history (posted at the Worldservice blog), “… circumstances of a most inevitable nature compelled me and our boys to change our name”; the group became Victor Olaiya and His All-Stars.

Tony Allen joined the All-Stars in 1960, initially playing claves and later drums, although he didn’t stick around long. Olaiya’s group scored a series of hits in Nigeria over the course of that decade:

“Baby Jowo”:

“Moonlight Highlife”:

and “Trumpet Highlife”:

(That last was a collaboration with another highlife star, the Ghanaian saxophonist E.T. Mensah.) Meanwhile, Fela and Allen were playing what they called “highlife-jazz” together in the new band Koola Lobitos – a much faster, more aggressive take on the highlife sound, with songs like “Lai Se” that were inspired by the raw American R&B of the time:

The record that would push Fela–and consequently nearly every other West African pop musician–in a new direction arrived from America in 1968. James Brown‘s Live at the Apollo, Vol. 2 was a double LP whose centerpiece was a side-long, blisteringly intense medley that began with his hit “Let Yourself Go” and mutated into “There Was a Time” and “I Feel Alright”:

The hard, incantatory funk Brown was creating at that time hit Africa even harder than it hit America — here’s a fantastic 1968 performance of “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)”:

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… and Olaiya got the message in a hurry.

Under yet another new name, Victor Olaiya & His International All Stars recorded a tough if somewhat out-of-tune medley of “Let Yourself Go” and “There Was a Time”:

… and in 1970 Olaiya’s All Stars Soul International took on “I Feel Alright” too:

In their own material, they cranked up the speed of highlife, and threw in a bunch of Brown’s tricks, like the single-chord jams that came alive when horns slashed against their rhythms. See, for instance, the obviously JB-inspired “Omelebele”

Fela and Allen, though, didn’t cover Brown: they figured out how to channel some of Brown’s ideas into an even tougher version of their “highlife-jazz,” which they started calling “Afrobeat.” By 1970, they’d worked out the template that Fela would follow for the rest of his career, with frenetic dance records like “Alu Jon Jonki Jon”:

and they became the biggest thing in Nigerian music. Afrobeat didn’t quench the country’s thirst for highlife, and Olaiya continued to record and play for decades; he celebrated his 80th birthday last year. But once Allen and Fela came up with a groove of their own, the students eclipsed their former teacher.

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