When the subject of West African music from the 60s and 70s is discussed, it’s hard for the casual fan to look beyond the great Fela Kuti. Fela alone is enough for many people, since his body of work is quite extensive. For the novice, going through it all is a daunting task, so, sadly, many don’t venture beyond that. Thus, when it comes to West African music, with the exception of connoisseurs, and older Africans, most people can’t get past the canon of Fela, and it’s understandable. Even people who don’t know much about West Africa, much less Nigeria have heard of Fela. His work is the most popular, and after the Fela musical, his music reached an even wider audience.
Despite the above, connoisseurs of West African music have been unearthing gems from the vaults since the late 1990s, and the process has gained momentum in the last few years. One musician who has been “rediscovered” is El Rego. El Rego is definitely not a household name, but it should be. The connoisseurs knew who he was - his 45s usually fetched top prices because they were rare - but unlike his countrymen Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou, he wasn't known in the west. He first started garnering wider attention in 2008 when his song, Se Na Min was included in the African Scream Contest compilation put out by Analog Africa.
The following year, Analog Africa put out the Legends of Benin compilation that featured several El Rego songs.
The spine tingling, funky grooves heard from El Rego’s music created a huge buzz. Suddenly, everyone wanted more.
So who is El Rego? Théophile Do-Rego, who later became known as ‘El Rego’, was born on May 3rd, 1938 in Porto Norvo, Dahomey (now known as Benin). He spent his formative years in Dakar, Senegal, and it was there he began playing music while in his teens in the mid-50s. He also lived in Niger and Burkina Faso in the late 50s, before returning to Benin in 1961, shortly after the country got its independence from France. He briefly played in a band called Jazz Spot, and later began playing nightclubs and hotel lounge bars. During this period he played in various bands, including playing with GG Vickey, who would go on to become a legend in Benin.
In 1966, El Rego formed his own ensemble, and together they were known as El Rego Et Ses Commandos. From then on, the band recorded music that appealed to what the people in nightclubs wanted to hear, and a lot of what the people wanted to hear was American Soul and Funk. The band incorporated these sounds into their live performances with the help of a musician from Ghana named Eddy Black Power, and together they covered songs by James Brown and Otis Redding.
Unfortunately, El Rego Et Ses Commandos and Eddy Black Power only recorded one song together, Feeling You Got, a cover of a song of the same name by a Gambian band known as The Super Eagles. The band was widely popular in Ghana, which is how Eddy Black Power got to know about them.
The song was a hit, and El Rego Et Ses Commandos continued to perform live and release 45s, but with more of a Beninese sound.
In 1972, Mathieu Kérékou seized power in Benin, ousting Justin Ahomadégbé-Tomêtin. During this period, the pro-revolutionary forces wanted to shut down music venues and outlets of creativity in general. They raided and closed nightclubs. They then began to arrest musicians and nightclub patrons. Eventually, El Rego was arrested, and was told he'd only be released if he recorded a pro-revolutionary song. Though El Rego was personally opposed the revolution, as it restricted his personal freedom, he felt he had no choice but to oblige. The song was Vive Le Renouveau, and he duly regained his freedom.
Stylistically, critics always compare El Rego to Fela Kuti and James Brown. While El Rego does in fact cite Fela’s Afrobeat influence (and, after all, Benin borders Nigeria), he isn’t just an amalgamation of Fela and sprinklings of James Brown like most critics describe him. These critics, I should add, are usually Caucasian, so discerning the differences is probably more difficult for them that it is for a West African. A lot gets lost in translation, and everything reverts to the failsafe Afrobeat and Fela comparison, despite the fact that most of what El Rego plays is not Afrobeat. Limiting him to those descriptions is a disservice to what he brings to the table. He has his own indelible style that mixes Funk, Highlife, Soul, Blues and traditional Beninese rhythms and sounds, and there is no one quite like him. El Rego himself was a pioneer in Benin, since it was his music that inspired the widely popular Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou. As fate would have it, the newfound popularity of Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou made crate diggers pay more attention to the music of Benin, and this led to the "rediscovery" of El Rego. In years past, West African music usually meant exploring the hidden treasures of Nigeria and Ghana. Not anymore.
This recent release on Daptone Records is a compilation of his 45s by Frank Gossner of Voodoo Funk fame. What is presented is a finely curated snapshot of what was happening musically in Benin in the mid-60s to early-70s. As was the case in most newly post-independent African nations, creativity was at an all-time high and the sheer output of new music, literature and assorted creative art that swept the continent reflects this. The Daptone El Rego compilation is highly recommended.