A legendary artist who had a string of global hit songs in the 1990s was in Kenya last week on his first ever visit to the country. The BDLife caught up with British singer and rapper Pato Banton at his hotel at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport just as he prepared to take a road trip to Kitui.
“I am not on a music trip right now; I am very undercover,” said the singer who is best known for his cover of the classic Baby Come Back which topped the UK charts in 1994.
Accompanied by his wife, Antoinette “Rootsdawtah” Hall and a film crew, the 60-year-old performer was in the country shooting an upcoming documentary called Ubuntu celebrating the bonds among communities across Africa.
Antoinette, who is among the creative directors of the film being shot across 12 countries in Africa, is also the keyboardist in Pato’s band. She has played for Jamaican greats like Gregory Isaacs, Beres Hammond, and Glen Washington with whom she performed in Kenya in 2005.
Pato Banton, who was born Patrick Murray in London and moved to Birmingham at the age of 8, grew up in a household that was bustling with music thanks to his stepfather, who was a DJ running a sound system.
One room in their tiny house was converted into a dancehall and, young Pato would man the entrance during the late-night sessions, which is how he acquired the nickname “Pato” from an owl that, according to Jamaican folklore, stays up all night crying “patoo patoo”.
Being among the first-generation-born of Caribbean immigrants in England presented many challenges.
“The environment was very racist; the police were racist and the judicial system was very biased and when we saw racism anywhere in the world we sympathised and understood how deep it was rooted.”
“Even though I never experienced a hot country as a child, I knew something was wrong with the English weather and I used to cry when I had to go to school in the snow saying ‘God, why I am I in this country.’”
He started DJ’ing at the age of 11, using the stage name Ranking Pato and when he auditioned for a contract with Fashion Records in London the label asked him to rap over vinyl records of different genres, from blues and jazz.
“I just improvised regardless of the style of music and when they finished, the label bosses said ‘No more Ranking Pato; now you are Pato Banton” (Banton is slang for an accomplished lyricist).
The infectious sing-along anthem Go Pato in 1992 was among the first hits to launch him into the mainstream. But the highlight of his success came with a version of Baby Come Back, originally a 1967 hit by Eddy Grant and the Equals, which became a UK number one single for four weeks in 1994.
“When the record label enquired who I wanted to do the work with, I asked if UB40 would sing the cover song because they are very good with covers, and I would then add my own lyrics.”
He had already recorded two tracks with UB40 on the album Baggariddim in 1985 including Hip Hop Lyrical Robot which was the B-side of the US No. 1 single I Got You Babe.
Pato Banton was back in the UK Top 20 later in 1995 with Bubbling Hot featuring Ranking Roger. That same year, one of the world’s best-selling pop artists, Sting sent his single The Cowboy Song to the same producer who did Baby Come Back who then asked Pato if he wanted to add some lyrics for a remix.
“Sting didn’t know anything about it, so I put some rapping on it and the producer sent it back to Sting who loved it.”
Sting, who had just finished shooting the video for the song, told the production company to re-set the scenes and edit Pato into the video for the single which hit the UK Top 40 charts.
“Sting had promised to return the favour whenever I needed to do a song with him and it just so happened that I was performing his song Spirits in A Material World so I asked him if we could we re-do that.”
Sting flew Pato and his band to Spain to record the video and then used the band to back him during a concert with Madonna and Elton John. The song was also featured on the soundtrack to the Hollywood comedy Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls.
Reflecting on his legacy, Pato Banton who now lives in Los Angeles tips the current generation of artists to keep their music clean and positive.
“We have a responsibility as artists to educate, to elevate and in 10 years’ time when you look back at your catalogue, you want to be proud and say ‘look, everything that I had to say, we can play today with pride’”.