Coming Home: Original Ghanaian Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1964-1981
US: 30 Sep 2016
UK: 30 Sep 2016
To look back on Pat Thomas’ career is to examine the musical history of a nation. His voice, versatile and powerful, has been ubiquitous in Ghanaian popular music for decades, and Coming Home traces 16 years of it, from Thomas’s formative years singing highlife in big bands through a rainbow of Afrobeat, reggae, disco, and everything in between. If Ghana was buying it, Pat Thomas was selling it—the best of it. To have so many of these different styles packed into a single retrospective makes for the best kind of history lesson.
Referring to Pat Thomas’s golden voice is more than empty adulation. Back in 1978, he earned the actual title of Mr. Golden Voice of Africa, and it stuck, an apt description for him. Even in ensembles as large as the early highlife bands Thomas fronted as a teen, his voice stands out, adding a soaring, jubilant note to sunny brass and upbeat guitars. Featured on Coming Home are highlife cuts of the brightest and clearest variety, with infectious choruses and a sweet ease to each groove. Carefree imperfections in “Go Modern” with Broadway Dance Band and “Yaa Amponsah” with Ogyatanaa Show Band speak to a simpler time, when partying trumped production and melodies let their listeners escape.
Gradually, the era shifts away from carefree highlife. The Sweet Beans bring drums, bass, and social consciousness to the forefront, embracing Thomas and a chorus of backing vocalists in reggae track “Revolution”, a positive but entreating ode to progress and struggle. From there, the album gains a new heat, and Thomas’s golden voice joins a nationwide fight against war and corruption. His hopeful brand of Afrobeat swings, his voice resonant as it carries each tune with the help of fast drums and electric guitar, the souls of Nigeria and Ghana mingling in exuberant chants and unstoppable horns. “We Are Coming Home”, a track Thomas sings with the Sweet Beans’ alter ego Marijata, is at the pinnacle, with Thomas’s voice hitting new heights and stepping back to let trumpets and guitars alike take on furious solos.
Thomas’s work with Marijata and the Sweet Beans tends to sound the most balanced in terms of band and singer, as well as the most accessible. It’s hard to say if Pat Thomas held the same occasional disdain for James Brown as his musical neighbor and contemporary Fela Kuti, but there’s traces of that same style of funk throughout many of the Marijata tracks, and the Sweet Beans’ tunes smack of old-school reggae.
Things arrive back home at highlife when Ebo Taylor comes into play, bringing with him piano chords that could fit in just as well at a club in Havana as they do in Accra, not forsaking Afrobeat sounds, but bringing their roots right back to them. “Sack The Devils” pulls no lyrical punches when it comes to Thomas calling on Africans across the continent to fight for political freedom while alternating between modern arrangements and a plethora of traditional percussion.
On the second disk of Coming Home, the fight continues into the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, where electronics and 15-minute tracks bring burger-highlife to the table. It’s the musical equivalent of “all of the above” and then some, brewing funk, soul, Afrobeat, and the ever-polarizing sounds of disco together into a single, bombastic style, named for both its physical origins in Germany and its spiritual roots in Ghana. Important for Thomas’s international influence, the later tracks nevertheless walk a fine line between fun and cheesy, and sometimes land on the wrong side. That’s always a risk of letting a musical career stretch into the ‘80s, though, and for the most part, Thomas’s voice saves even the maudlin synth strings in “Can’t You See”, the R&B ballad closing the album.
Over the course of the 16 years covered here (not to mention the decades since then), Pat Thomas’s voice changes to suit each new style, but at the same time, it doesn’t age a day. It’s honey and lemon, smooth and substantial, a sincere warmth that elevates every song Thomas sings.
Some artists might use a title like Mr. Golden Voice of Africa as a reason to take it easy, but not Pat Thomas. Nearly four decades after being given the title, he’s still embarking on world tours and basking in every new twist that Ghanaian music takes. Listening to his breadth of work on Coming Home, though, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Pat Thomas’s voice was made for singing, and that’s the simple truth that makes this a retrospective worth the time it takes to listen—and a good pair of dancing shoes.
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