Pat, as the "golden voice of highlife", what does highlife represent to you?
Pat Thomas: "First and foremost highlife is what I do. Our first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, was quite the music lover and actively promoted pioneering highlife bands like Ramblers Dance Band and Broadway Dance Band. One of the reasons why this type of music was eventually called highlife is because it supposedly brought audiences in high spirits. In fact the music itself was derived from existing rhythms used in Ghanaian traditional music."
What exactly is your musical background? Would you say you stem from a musical family?
Pat Thomas: "Oh yes, absolutely! My father was a music teacher and my mother used to lead her church choir. Finally I'm also related to King Onyina (Kwabena 'King' Onyina, born March 15th 1932, is a Ghanaian guitarist and band leader, forming his first band, Coolers's Band - later rechristened Onyina's Guitar Band - at age 16 in 1953 and earned the title 'King' in 1961, when he won a National Guitar Band competition in Accra. Onyina is also known for having introduced progressive jazz chords to guitar highlife bands in the 1950s, red.), who was my uncle. He's dead and gone now, may his soul rest in peace, but I used to stay at his place and as far as my musical career goes, he's been a huge inspiration!"
Was it while singing in church with your mother that you discovered your voice?
Pat Thomas: "I definitely sang in church for a while, but somehow I always knew I would be a well-known singer one day. I just sang everywhere and all the time! (laughs)"
Your career as a singer really took off when you met and started collaborating with Ebo Taylor.
Pat Thomas: "Right! At that time I was staying at my uncle's place in Kumasi. I used to take care of washing and preparing his clothes and such things. Wherever he went, I had to follow. Now I had a musician friend who was the drummer with a band in Takoradi. When I passed through there during a tour with my uncle, I decided to look him up. We agreed to meet at a local hotel called Zenith and as soon as I entered I could hear a big band rehearsing in the back. Now it so happened that at that moment they were rehearsing a highlife song called 'Mansa' by Dr. K. Gyasi and His Noble Kings, but the thing was that their singer was from the Ewe tribe and didn't master the lyrics of the song which were written in Twi. They asked me if I could write the lyrics down so the singer could read what he was supposed to sing, but that didn't work out either, so in the end they just asked me if I could sing it. The thing is I knew I had to grab this chance, so I sang the song as beautifully as I could and the bandleader invited me to stay on the spot. It wasn't much later that Ebo Taylor returned to Ghana after a stint in London and I was introduced to him. When Ebo saw this young boy standing in front of him, he wasn't immediately convinced, but when he heard me sing he didn't need any more convincing! Basically we've been friend ever since. I've always considered him to be like an uncle, and soon we became an inseparable duo on stage as well. In the beginning it was Ebo writing all my lyrics, but after a while he trusted me enough to let me have a go as well."
One of the projects you were both a part of was Sweet Beans, a band sponsored by the Ghana Cocoa Board.
Pat Thomas: "That's exactly it. The Ghana Cocoa Board put the band together to promote Ghanaian cocoa and we had to go and play on festival-like events they put on to promote their products. However, the band was so popular that we also started to play the commercial circuit after a while."
In 1979 a military coup led by Jerry Rawlings supposedly killed highlife…
Pat Thomas: "Well it wasn't as much so that Rawlings had anything against highlife in particular, but the curfew his government implemented killed all nightlife in Ghana. It was forbidden to go out after six o'clock at night, so it became almost impossible to stage any concerts. A lot of musicians, myself included, decided to leave the country and try their luck abroad at that time."
At one stage in your career you collaborated with Tony Allen, one of the founding fathers of the Nigerian afrobeat movement and I believe he was also instrumental in the creation of your new album?
Pat Thomas: "I first collaborated with Tony back in my Sweet Beans days. Fela used to come to Ghana all the time and I always liked the way Tony played. Back in the day we recorded a few songs together and continued to work with one another on and off. Doing this album seemed like the ideal opportunity to get back together."
Apart from these musical legends from highlife and afrobeat coming together, the album is also a collaboration of different generations as Kwashibu Area Band is made up of young musicians. How did you meet up with them?
Pat Thomas: "Kwame (Yeboah, red.), the bandleader, and Ben (Abarbanel-Wolff, red.) called me one day, stating they wanted to do an album with me. Kwame and Ben had written the music to some of the songs that are now on the album and wanted me to write lyrics to their melodies and sing. Apart from that Ben and Kwame also took some of my older songs and gave them a modern twist. All the instruments on the album were played live and Kwame and Ben insisted on using analogue equipment to give the music that typical vintage sound of back in the day."
For people not familiar with the name, could you tell us where Kwashibu is located and what kind of an area it is?
Pat Thomas: "Kwashibu is a suburb of Accra and is like a village on the outskirts of the city centre with lots of gardens and greenery. The area is well-known for its fresh produce and it's also where Kwame lives and works, so it seemed a fitting name for the band. If you're ever in Ghana you should definitely visit!"