El Rego: El Rego (Daptone)

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El Rego: Achuta
El Rego: El Rego (Daptone)

DJs like nothing more than unearthing obscurities – makes them hipper than thou – but UK archivist/platter-spinner and all round good guy Frank Goesser does us a favour with this collection of a dozen late Sixties/early Seventies sides by Afro-soul singer Theophile Do Rego (aka El Rego) from Benin.

In the brief but excellent liner notes, El Rego tells his fascinating story: born in Benin (Dahomey as it was in '38); growing up in Senegal in the care of a friend of his father's ("I wasn't happy living with this man"); finding comfort in music; playing in a band in Dakar when a teenager in '55 ("this means that by now I have been on stage for over 55 years!"); living in Niger and Burkina Faso; returning to Benin in '71 after independence and playing in bands which were tuned in to American soul . . .

Then there was the clampdown on entertainment after the revolution in '72; his arrest and being offered freedom if he wrote a pro-revolutionary song ("I wasn't pro-revolutionary, in fact I was a little bit opposed to it. The revoution was good for my country but restricted my personal freedom") and subsequently writing the song Vive Le Renouveau ("a very melancholy blues") included here . . .

It's quite a story and Gossner says when he sat down to play El Rego some of the singles he had found the old man hadn't heard most of them in over two decades.

But what magic Gossner discovered: El Rego's lo-fi and seemingly primitive sound connects James Brown soul-funk with Fela's Afrobeat and delightfully tickle'n'twang guitars.

Hearing this music is like discovering those old, early Seventies white label reggae singles for the first time. There is something simple and direct about the communication but they are also subtle and full of nuance, there is clever understatement in the instrumentation alongside the heartfelt vocals.

Some songs here sound ineffably sad (Kpon Fi La, Ke Amon-gbetchea), others just spring to life and come at you from decades ago with a freshness that is exciting (the blustering enthusiasm of Djobim with its grunts and mad surf guitar-goes-wonky solo). There is a lot of pop here too in the economy, verse-chorus structure.

Longtime listeners to music from West Africa may hear echoes of King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Sonny Okosun and others here. If your ears are more attuned to funk and soul then this has enough of that (Feeling You Got), but much more musical exoticism.

Terrific lo-fi fun and a great, expressive voice atop cracking singles.

Like the sound of this? Then start checking out old African styles here.

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