Hinted at by groundbreaking compilations like the mammoth Ethiopiques series, the previously obscure African music landscape has yielded a huge quantity of exotic genres in recent years, from Nigerian highlife to Kenyan benga, with American sounds filtered through traditional instrumentation and melodies. One of these finds is the Beninese funk scene, represented by artists like Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou and El Rego, a singer/bandleader active in the ‘60s and ‘70s, whose previously scarce material Daptone has collected in a 12-track greatest-hits package. It’s a fantastic collection, showcasing a sound that utilizes some familiar elements (call-and-response singing, saxophones, squiggly electric organs) and some less familiar for this type of music (accordion, scat singing).
Accompanied by a tight band that dabbles in funk and soul, El Rego has the unhinged charisma of Fela Kuti, an animal magnetism expressed through a cartoonish repertoire of grunts, yowls, and shrieks. It’s a singing style that recalls James Brown at times, with staccato bursts of vocal confetti punctuating higher-energy moments or briefly derailing songs completely. These kinds of exclamations ring out on opener “Feeling You Got,” which layers syncopated drumming over a wheezing looped accordion riff.
El Rego may be most characterized by this explosive style, but he handles softer moments just as well, transforming into a composed crooner with a voice that’s both ragged and somehow pleasant. “E Nan Mian Nuku” finds him singing softly over a thin groove composed of snare clicks and quiet guitar, while “Kpon Fi La” lands somewhere in the middle, a mostly vocal ballad that lapses into brief jazzy reveries. This kind of versatility sustains El Rego, which works both as a general career summary and a standalone album, identifying another vital, exciting voice from a continent whose musical significance is still being discovered.