If you’ve listened to any of the swell Beninese music that’s come out in recent years, El Rego will sound warmly familiar. This familiarity goes beyond his presence on African Scream Contest and Legends Of Benin, or even the evident influence of James Brown’s screams upon his own tonsil-stripping utterances. Indebtedness goes both ways, and the man who was born Theophile Do Rego is an acknowledged early inspiration on the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. If you’ve spent anytime with their marvelous Analog Africa compilations, you’ll know these grooves, and even some of these tunes. But it’s not the sort of familiarity that breeds contempt, because if you’re acquainted with Beninese rhythms, you know that they’re sturdy things. Founded upon beats used in Vodun ceremonies, they’re made to keep people animated for hours. Infused with Latin and North American funk rhythms, they draw deeply on some of the 20th century’s most universal languages.
This isn’t the sort of one-world pabulum available in your Whole Foods check-out line. El Rego’s music, like the Orchestre’s, has a rawness rooted in circumstance. El Rego and his Commandos were nightclub veterans, and they knew how to get the job done. Most of this is essentially live in the studio, and the studio was probably just a reel-to-reel deck in someone’s house, but there’s a just-right roughness to the recording that has worked for bands as diverse as The Commandos and The Trashmen. The guitars and voices push into the red, the drums accept no opposition, and the bass is going to make babies with your baby while the saxophone is busy with you. “Feeling You Got,” the opener, is one of the record’s most overtly American-sounding tunes. Guest singer Eddy Black Power growls his way through the (rare) English lyric with more emphasis on “feel” than precision; it takes him a few cracks at the phrase “Sock it to me” before he makes it comprehensible. But he’s not letting that get in his way. And even though they’re reaching for an American sound, the prominent use of accordion instead of horns marks this as a product of Francophone Africa.
El Rego sings the other songs in a mix of French and African languages, but you won’t need to know a word to want to sway to the “E Nan Mian Nuku” or shake along with the driving “Djobime.” Even “Cholera” sounds more like a call to party than a word of caution about an epidemic. But all is not celebration in El Rego’s world. “Vive Le Renouveau” has to be one of the most morose songs ever written in support of a revolution, probably because it was written under duress. It is, like the last song “Ke Amon-Gbetchea,” a straight-up, downcast blues. One wishes that the liner notes told the story of every song, but they devote more space to old pictures and El Rego’s personal reminiscences about the milieu in which this music evolved. I don’t suppose they want to encourage too much sitting around when this album is playing, and that makes all sorts of sense.