Pat Thomas Credit: courtesy of Strut Records

One of my biggest disappointments from this year’s World Music Festival was the fact that the scheduled concert by veteran Ghanaian singer Pat Thomas didn’t happen. Slow visa processing forced his band to cancel their entire U.S. tour—a sadly familiar story for foreign musicians trying to play in this country. Thomas has enjoyed revived fame in recent years, a result of falling in with the same Germany-based crew that’s helped terrific Ghanaian guitarist Ebo Taylor (an early collaborator of Thomas) achieve international acclaim.

Last year Strut Records released Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band, cut with saxophonist Ben Abarbanel-Wolff, an American who lives in Berlin and leads the group Afrobeat Academy. It’s a remarkable comeback record, with major contributions from Taylor and drummer Tony Allen—the architect of the Afrobeat rhythm popularized by the bands of Nigerian legend Fela Kuti. Thomas’s voice remains as strong, supple, and soulful as ever, and he’s committed to introducing the joyful sounds of highlife to a new generation of listeners.

A couple months ago, Strut filled out Thomas’s backstory with a terrific career-spanning survey called Coming Home. He grew up surrounded by highlife, the calypso-influenced sound of his homeland—wildly popular singer and bandleader King Onyina was his uncle. But when he first started out, he sang what were known as copyrights—covers of pop songs, usually Western, by the likes of Nat King Cole, Jimmy Cliff, and Stevie Wonder. Around that time, in 1966, he met Taylor, who’d just returned from studying in London. They soon joined the legendary highlife group Broadway Dance Band, and Coming Home opens with an old-school highlife track called “Go Modern,” which makes those roots crystal-clear. Taylor was soon hired away for a new combo, Uhuru Dance Band, and Thomas eventually followed him over. Over the next half-decade or so, they worked together in a variety of groups in London, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. In the mid-70s the influence of reggae made its way into Thomas’s music in a project with Taylor called Sweet Beans as well as in a related combo called Marijata.

Thomas forged a dynamic sound that injected modernity into the percolating rhythms of highlife: electric keyboards, stinging lead guitars, and infectious pop melodies steeped in American soul and roots reggae. By the late 70s highlife, was in decline in Ghana, as a series dictatorial leaders quashed the scene’s vitality. Thomas was part of a large exodus, first spending time in London and Berlin, then in 1986 arriving in Canada, where he spread the gospel of highlife to new audiences, becoming a major artist on a burgeoning world-music circuit. He returned home in 1997, but for years he rarely performed outside Ghana. Here’s hoping he and his band get a chance to finally put together a real U.S. tour—he’s 65 years old.

The new collection is packed with gems, and it was especially difficult to choose just one for today’s 12 O’Clock Track. I decided to go with “I Can Say,” a scorching tune made with Marijata. It’s a good antidote to the blustery cold outside.
Today’s playlist:

Adam O’Farrill, Stranger Days (Sunnyside)
Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus, The Distance (ECM)
Hans Abrahamsen, Let Me Tell You (Winter & Winter)
Bill Charlap Trio, Notes From New York (Impulse)
Jason Roebke Octet, Cinema Spiral (No Business)