Every time Daptone Records put something out, life gets a little better. The Budos Band, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones, Menahan Street Band, that’s some serious talent right there. And for their latest release they’ve gone back to the source, releasing a collection of the greatest hits of the Beninese James Brown, El Rego. Well, perhaps greatest hits is a bit of a misnomer, but make no mistake, El Rego is solid gold all the way through.
El Rego, or Théophile Do-Rego to give him his full name, was a bandleader (of El Rego et ses Commandos) in Benin in the sixties and seventies. In the disarmingly honest liner notes, he reveals that the music his band played was largely dictated by the tastes of the crowds they played for, meaning they played a mix of American soul and funk combined with traditional Beninese rhythms and the other hot noise coming from their next door neighbours in Nigeria, afrobeat.
It brought the house down. And listening to songs like “Hessa” it’s easy to understand why. “Hessa” is a straight up party joint that takes off with one of El Rego’s signature ‘uhhhhh’s (hence the JB comparison) and is propelled by a killer guitar riff. “Dis-Moi Oui” rattles along at the same breakneck pace, but with an organ at the helm, while “Cholera” (yes, a song about the disease) must be the funkiest public service announcement ever.
But the magic of El Rego is that like the best, he can do it fast, and he can take it down slow too. “Vive Le Renouveau” is a dope blues track, made even more powerful by the fact that he was forced to write it by the revolutionary government who had just assumed power in Benin.
It’s an incident that illustrates the rawness of El Rego whether it’s in the sound or the stories behind the songs; a rawness that makes it such a dynamic and resonant record. In many ways El Rego himself is reminiscent of Sir Victor Uwaifo, another African soul hero, a real character who created his own sound by mixing traditional music with funk, panache and passion. Both have been “rediscovered” by Western labels and both deserve their place in the pantheon alongside such legends as Fela, Francis Bebey and the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo (who were inspired to get busy after hearing El Rego’s first record).
But El Rego is his own man with his sound and deserves his time in the spotlight and this album represents his time to shine. Daptone deserve a lot of credit for putting together a record that’s beautifully researched, sequenced and packaged; a fitting tribute to one of modern African music’s originators.