Courtesy of the artist
El Rego, the godfather of Benin funk, and his band The Commandos.
El Rego, the godfather of Benin funk, and his band The Commandos. Courtesy of the artist
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the history of world music proves that unfamiliar instruments and rhythms cross borders much more readily than vocal styles. There's no question that, starting in the late '60s, soul and then funk became very popular in sub-Saharan Africa. Decades of reissues show that a lot of players found their way into electric guitar, and that enriching the big beat of the West was a cinch for African percussionists.
Regarding singers, only South Africa had a gospel tradition that was ready for soul from the get-go. An additional handicap for many countries was that, while young bands enjoyed jamming on funk riffs and rhythms, they were more comfortable with folk forms and not notably skilled at writing what the West would consider tight pop songs.
El Rego, from Benin in West Africa, has no such problems with his first album available in the U.S., a collection of vintage 45s. From the start, his band The Commandos is in the pocket, and the leader's phrasing and tone connects right away.
Naturally, there's lots of James Brown in there, but while other Benin singers of the period are more scary than funky when they echo Soul Brother Number One, El Rego makes restraint sound not only more fun, but also more insightful.
His confident flair with soul is a bit mysterious. He was not a precocious, obsessive fan. Rego and The Commandos were trying to give the people what they wanted as much as anything, and indeed, "Feeling You Got," the first track on the El Rego collection, features a vocal by the guest singer who showed them the way: the wonderfully named Eddy Black Power.
As always with international music, however, language can erect barriers. One song, available only as a download — or as a bonus 45 with the vinyl version of the album — tells a poignant story of two blind men who decide to commit suicide together by jumping in the river. But if you can't understand the words, the story doesn't improve the tune. El Rego's backstory does enhance "Vive le Renouveau," which is dedicated to the Marxist revolution of 1972.
El Rego explains in his liner notes that, as part of a crackdown on personal freedoms in general and nightlife in particular, he was arrested and told he would be released if he wrote a pro-revolution song. He had to agree, but he couldn't help but make it a "very melancholic blues." And that's exactly what it sounds like: a praise song written at gunpoint. The funky party days were over in Benin, but the El Rego collection insists that they not be forgotten.