Pat Thomas and the power of highlife

It’s hard to believe that political instability in Ghana, rising inflation and food shortages during the late 1970s and early 80s, also left an indelible mark on the country’s highlife music. 

Pat Thomas was born Kwabena Nyamekye Amoo-Mensah

Citizens, including my aunties and uncles, left the country in their droves while those that remained, lived through a period in the early 80s where dawn-to-dusk curfews became commonplace. 

Some people who were out after curfew were never seen again, theatres stopped staging shows, and highlife musicians, known for playing in live bands around the country, were unable to perform or create new music because of these restrictions. 

“That’s when the music died,” Uncle Pat told journalist Mark Levine back in 2015 at the start of his album launch of ‘Obiaa’ (meaning everyone in Akan) with the Kwashibu Area Band. “Before that there was so much music everywhere. It was so important and then the coup destroyed it all.”

Legends

Pat Thomas started performing professionally in the mid-1960s with other legends including Ebo Taylor, Tony Allen and Fela Kuti, and soon became known as the Golden Voice of Africa. 

His legacy includes such hits as ‘Odo San Bra’ and False Lover. This musical stalwart has made a reputation of collaborating with live band including the Sweet Beans Band and the Uhuru Band, and crafting his unique sound.

But as the political instability started to encroach on Ghana’s music scene, Uncle Pat was among those that left the country, taking the music, his skills and talents with them. This ultimately exposed highlife music to new Western influences, musicians and technologies. 

It is out of that exodus that synthesised keyboard sounds such as burger highlife (from the term Hamburger – meaning a Hamburg native of Germany) were created.  

Anthems like ‘Sika Yɛ Mogya’ and ‘Yesu San Bra’ (two of Uncle Pat’s favourites) have – for me – become synonymous with 80s highlife. It’s a genre I voraciously consumed as a child, thanks to my music-loving Dad. 

Highlife music

Uncle Pat during soundcheck at the Jazz Cafe. He told me his favourite song on the album is ‘Obi Nim’

Just the opening bars of a Pat Thomas track were enough of a cue to get uncles and aunties off their seats and on many a Ghana Union dance floor in England, singing each word with deep nostalgia for the Motherland, while we youngsters looked on in wonderment. 

More than 30 years on and highlife music continues to evolve. “People say that highlife music has gone but to me, it still reigns,” Uncle Pat told me hours before he was due to perform at the Jazz Café, London on 1 October 2019.

“I’m not just saying that because I sing highlife, but you see it in the way the young artists are keen to collaborate with us. That is proof that they acknowledge that highlife is Ghana’s main musical form and we should not discard it.”

He, along with Ebo Taylor, may be pushing into their youthful 70s and 80s respectively, but that has not stopped younger Ghanaian musicians from seeking out collaborations with them. 

Uncle Pat has a career spanning 54 years, playing everything from burgher highlife,and highlife inspired by funk,and soul. He has worked alongside scores of stars including Sarkodie and Kofi Kinaata and in doing so, has inadvertently kept the tenets of highlife alive in many modern-day Afrobeats tracks.

Kwashibu Area Band

When I met Uncle Pat on the European leg of his tour for ‘Obiaa’, he was collaborating with another set of younger musicians called Kwashibu Area Band. 

I learnt from a fan that most of the band members come from an area of Accra called Kwashibu – which has always been a hot bed of musical talent. “Many of the guys started their musical careers in church, and went on to perform at gigs across Accra,” said the fan, who had travelled from Accra to London, to hear them play. 

I watched Uncle Pat and the band rehearse in the Jazz Café during soundcheck and later pose for publicity shots and it’s hard to believe that Pat – at 72 – is any older than the 20, 30 and 40-somethings he performs with.

That youthful energy is translated into the album. If you’ve not heard it yet, I can only describe it as a nostalgic salute to the highlife of my youth layered with modern twists that are perhaps an indicator of its future direction.

Led by co-producer Kwame Yeboah, who has worked with the UK’s Craig David, Stevie Wonder and so many notable others, Obiaa bursts to life with this infusion of tradition captured in the kpanlogo, frenchua and classically Ghanaian proverb-laden lyrics) alongside modern electric guitar, keyboard and brass influences. 

We have Ben Abarbanel-Wolff (co-producer) and Valentino on brass, Osei on drums, Eric ‘Sunday’ Owusu on percussion, and Nee Mantse and Kwaku Mensah on guitar. Tie that altogether with Kwame’s keyboard prowess and Uncle Pat’s honeyed tones, and the album is a work of art. “Kwame creates most of the instrumentals and I develop the lyrics,” Uncle Pat told me. “And in terms of what inspires me to write, well it depends on the instrumentals but it includes social life, love affairs and that kind of thing.”

This union of the old and new goes even further when you realise that tracks such as ‘Gyae Su’ and the ‘Okomfe Bone’ (my favourite!!) have been reworked to have an edgier sound while still retaining the hallmarks of that comforting highlife sound. 

The album features contributions from Tony Allen, Ebo Taylor and even Uncle Pat’s musical daughter Nana Yaa, who adds her backing vocals to track six.

Golden Voice

Uncle Pat is living proof that age ain’t nothing but a number. Watching him perform with band members, in equally edgy outfits from Ghanaian designers Tina Atiemo and Kromanteng of Gutta Soles, was electric. A possible secret to his youthful energy may lie behind his abstention from alcohol. He also credits his reputation of being ‘the Golden Voice of Africa’ to his penchant for drinking lots of water. He’s also disarmingly down-to-earth, approachable and extremely chilled. 

When I asked him how he earned the ‘Golden Voice of Africa’ title, and he said simply: “Well, they gave me the title because I have it and I cherish it so much,” he said with not an ounce of arrogance. “I’ve had the title since 1978. It was given to me by the Arts Council of Ghana. The government of the time was also involved, and it has stuck with me up until today.”

Education v talent

He definitely does posses it. At just 16 years old and against the wishes of his mum who wanted him to continue his education, Uncle Pat was arranging music for Ebo Taylor. Although he agrees that it is important for today’s youth to get their education alongside pursuing a music career, he learnt his craft on the job.

“I am self taught, so I don’t regret not going to college because my college was the people I worked with, the places I performed at,” he said “This is where I learnt to play the guitar, keyboard, drums, congas and read and write music.”

ɔdɔ San Bra

Having performed for host of successive Ghanaian heads of state, Uncle Pat recalls with a chuckle the time that short notice and horrendous Accra traffic (nothing has changed then) meant he missed an appointment to perform. He had been due to perform for the then president of Togo who had come to visit Ignatius Kutu (IK) Acheampong – Ghana’s head of state in 1978.

At the time, Uncle Pat was performing with the Sweet Beans band, which got its name because it was sponsored by the Ghana Cocoa Board. The name was a salute to the cocoa beans they manufactured. 

“Although we missed the slot, through no fault of our own, Acheampong asked me to play,” said Uncle Pat. “He liked one song of my songs – ‘ɔdɔ San Bra’ and said: ‘Mr Golden Voice, sing this song for me’. Afterwards, he autographed one of his pictures in green ink for me, gave me some crisp brown Ghana cedi notes that smelt so good, which I shared with the band, and he gave me one black label whiskey. I don’t drink but I took it.”

Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band are signed to Strut Records. The Obiaa album was recorded at Mixstation Studio, Accra and Lovelite Studio, Berlin.

 Want to read others like this? Check out:

Ghana’s afro-gypsy mulls over a third Pidgin-English musical

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2 thoughts on “Pat Thomas and the power of highlife

  1. Always an informative and engaging read. Who would have know that a coup could influence music in this way? Thanks misbeee for enlightening us. Keep up the good work.

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