If you’re well acquainted with the West African stylings of highlife, you’ll probably be familiar with the tender croonings of Pat ‘The Golden Voice Of Africa’ Thomas. A native of the Ghanaian town of Agona, the guitarist and drummer-turned-vocalist has enjoyed a career spanning over half a century, and has earnt the title of veteran to several bands and projects. It would therefore seem that music is sewn into Thomas’ very DNA. With a band leader for a mother, music teacher for a father and an uncle that happened to be a Ghanaian musical legend in his own right, it seems like Thomas was always destined to embark on such an illustrious career.
Best known for recording hits as part of the Ghana Cocoa Board-sponsored Sweet Beans band, the singer crowned 1978’s Mr. Golden Voice of Africa has worked alongside some of Africa’s finest. Earning his stripes in a band led by the inimitable Ebo Taylor, Thomas went on to write, record and perform as part of several different projects, racking up the accolades as he went along. Now returning after a decade in the proverbial wilderness, the former Blue Monks member is preparing to release his sixteenth album on Strut Records.
With a new LP underway, we asked Thomas to pick ten of the most significant records to emerge from the highlife canon. Compiling a selection tracks that span over seventy years of highlife music, this a great opportunity to whet your appetite before the album drops.
Broadway Dance Band – ‘Wofo Nono’
Joss Aikins will always be at the top of my list of highlife singers. When I was young, I wanted to sing like him. He was a regular vocalist with the old Broadway Dance Band under bandleader Sammy Obbot, and was very prolific during the late fifties and early sixties.
Joe Mensah – ‘Bonsue’
Joe was a great figure of highlife music in Ghana. He studied in the States and stood up for Ghanaian musicians’ rights by helping to create the Ghana Musicians Union. He was also my manager for a while, so I got to know him very well.
Cardinal Rex Lawson and his Mayor’s Band of Nigeria – ‘Sawale’
I loved Cardinal Rex’s voice! One of Nigeria’s all-time greats, and this was when he was at his height with the Mayor’s Band. He tragically died at a young age in a car accident, but no one will forget his music.
King Onyina – ‘Onyame Tie Me Su Fre’
King Onyina is my uncle. He’s a very important highlife musician, bringing jazz into highlife during the 1950s. He enjoyed great days during the early sixties, and accompanied our first President Kwame Nkrumah on an international tour. He was also a very generous man and passed his guitar techniques and knowledge of highlife to many younger musicians, myself included.
Jewel Ackah – ‘Bodambo Bodambo’
I worked with Jewel during the 1980s on his Electric Hi-Life album, and he was in my band for a while too. He’s a great vocalist. He was originally going to be a professional footballer but then joined a covers band, and ended up as the frontman for Sweet Talks during the seventies. He performed and toured with C.K. Mann for a while too.
The Uhuru Dance Band – ‘Yahyia Mu’
I worked with Uhuru Dance Band for a while. They were formed by members of Broadway Dance Band and, around 1970, they took me to London and I recorded with them. I remember that Uhuru and Jerry Hansen’s Ramblers Dance Band were big rivals at the time. Uhuru made some great music later on during the 1970s, blending highlife with American soul and jazz. Ed Ntreh sung vocals on some great tracks with them.
Paapa Yankson – ‘Woara Akofa Aba’
Another great highlife voice. Paapa was a stenographer for many years and only became a full-time musician later in his life. He joined Carousel Seven, C.K. Mann’s band, after they performed at his mother’s funeral. He then enjoyed a lot of success during the 1990s, and a lot of the younger guys now want him to feature on their tracks.
Dr K. Gyasi and his Noble Kings – ‘Nye Mani Kan’
The vocalist here, Thomas Frimpong, was a big star in Accra nightclubs during the late 1970s, and he was with the Noble Kings for over fifteen years. He wrote some great songs for them with Eric Agyeman, and championed the ‘sikyi’ beat which was a very popular style at home. He sadly passed away in 2013.
Chris Ajilo and his Cubanos – ‘Ariwo’
I really like Chris Ajilo’s take on highlife. He was trained by the British jazz saxophonist, Johnny Dankworth, and introduced Cuban rhythms into his music when he went back to Lagos during the 1950s. He is also known for producing some of Stephen Osita Osadebe’s classics during the 1970s. This track was later covered by Osibisa.
R2Bees – ‘Lobi’
I wanted to include one from the new generation. R2Bees is two guys, Paedae da Pralem and Mugeez. This track has the new sound that you hear in a lot of current Ghanaian ‘hiplife’ music, but it retains some of the spirit of highlife, which I like.