Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Report Abuse   |   Sign In   |   Join SEM
J.H. Kwabena Nketia
Share |

J.H. Kwabena Nketia




Memorial Citation by

Kwasi Ampene

University of Michigan



June 2016 was auspiciously busy but productive month for J. H. Kwabena Nketia. He launched his latest book publication, Reinstating Traditional Music in Contemporary Contexts, in early June and celebrated his 95th birthday anniversary on June 22. For his numerous students and colleagues in Ghana, Africa, and around the world, it does not come as a surprise that Nketia remain intellectually active even at 95 years old. He fulfills his speaking engagements around the world, and still rakes in national and international awards. He is also active as an administrator, holding weekly office hours on Tuesdays at the University of Ghana (Kwabena is the Akan day name for boys born on Tuesday). Nketia is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Ghana, UCLA, and the University of Pittsburgh. Additionally, he is the Chancellor of Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture at Akropong Akwapim (Ghana). He is an honorary member of ICTM (formerly IFMC), SEM, ISME, and the African Studies Association (ASA).

Nketia was born and raised in Asante Mampong initially by his parents and, upon the passing of his father, by his maternal grandparents. Nketia credits them for sowing the seeds of his “basic musicality” and his “musical kinship” in Akan traditions. After completing his primary and middle school education, he gained admission to the Presbyterian Training College at Akropong Akwapim where among other subjects, he was introduced to the rudiments of Western music in addition to learning how to play the harmonium. As strange as it may seem, in 1944 and during WWII, Nketia was among the first batch of twenty Ghanaians who were awarded Commonwealth scholarships and made the perilous journey by ship from the Gold Coast to England. Although the scholarship was for him to study linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, he managed to take additional courses at the University of London at Birkbeck College and, crucially, music courses at Trinity College of Music. In 1952, three years after his return home, Prof. Kofi Abrefa Busia, the head of Sociology Department at the University College of the Gold Coast (now University of Ghana), appointed Nketia as a Research Fellow in African Studies. With a space and resources at his disposal, Nketia robustly traveled the length and breadth of the country to record musical events and festivals while at the same time developing interdisciplinary programs in African Studies with initial focus on language, music, dance, and folklore. When the Institute of African Studies was established in 1961, he became the deputy director and, three years later, he became the first African Director of the institute. Not long after, he became the founding director of the School of Music, Dance and Drama (now the School of Performing Arts) and recruited Ghanaian legends Effua Sutherland, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Albert Mawere Opoku.

Nketia has been a member of the ICTM since 1954 and interacted with Klaus Wachsman, George Herzog and a host of comparative musicologist in Europe. He was a member of the Executive Board from 1959-1970. His lifelong association with SEM began with his first visit to the U.S. in 1958 on a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. In those heady years when SEM had just been carved out of the American Society for Comparative Musicology and Anthropology, Nketia met a fair number of the founding members, including Curt Sachs at Columbia University, Melville Herskovits and Alan P. Merriam at Northwestern University, Mantle Hood and Charles Seeger at UCLA, and in subsequent years and conference attendances, David McAllester and a host of luminaries. He was elected a member of the SEM Council in 1966, Director-at-Large in 1968, and First Vice President from 1972-73. For several decades, Nketia was a member of the International Commission for the Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind sponsored by UNESCO, in addition to serving on the Board of Directors of Music in the Life of Man: A World History by the International Music Council (IMC).

Nketia is indeed a prolific writer and a prominent composer. In his festschrift published in 1989, Jackie Djedje lists two hundred publications and forty-two compositions. The sheer diversity of his publications betrays his avid interest in interdisciplinary studies. There are books on Akan folktales, plays, poetry, drum poetry, fiction, translations of science materials for Twi readers, and a plethora of scholarly articles and monographs. Nearly four decades after his “official” retirement, he continues to share his knowledge, experience and reflections through a rigorous schedule of publications and lectures. Similarly, his diverse oeuvres of compositions include choral works, solo songs with piano accompaniment, and instrumentals works.

We can only imagine a glut of high points in Nketia’s illustrious career but here is a partial list. He has been honored with two festschrifts, African Musicology: Current Trends (1989) and Discourses in African Musicology (2015), and a video documentary, African Maestro: The Life and Work of Emeritus Professor J.H. Kwabena Nketia, by the Ghanaian film producer Anita Afonu and commissioned by the Goethe Institut. He was appointed Professor in the Music Department at UCLA in 1968, the Horatio Appleton Lamb Visiting Professor of Music at Harvard University (1972), a Visiting Professor at the University of Queensland in Brisbane-Australia, and the Andrew Mellon Chair of Music at the University of Pittsburgh (1983-1991). His general introductory book, Music of Africa (published in 1974), won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. He delivered the Charles Seeger Lecture at 34th Annual Meeting of SEM (1989). Together with Mantle Hood, William Malm, David McAllester, and Mieczyslaw Kolinski, he was honored as one of the pioneers of the discipline at the SEM 50th Annual Meeting in Atlanta-Georgia (2005). He is the founding director of the International Center for African Music and Dance (ICAMD) at the University of Ghana, with secretariats in the U.S. and selected African countries. Institutions bearing his name are the J.H. Kwabena Nketia Audio-Visual Archives and the J.H. Kwabena Nketia Conference Hall in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, and the Kwabena Nketia Center for Africana Studies at the African University College of Communications (AUCC) in Accra-Ghana. The Chartered Institute of Marketing Ghana (CIMG) recognized Nketia with the 25th National Marketing Performance Special Award (2013), and, finally, Nketia received the Companion of the Order of Star of Ghana from the government of Ghana (2000).

Like most secondary school children in Ghana, I knew Nketia remotely through his choral songs that we performed in our school choir. When I gained admission to the University of Ghana in 1987 to study music, Nketia had retired and relocated to UCLA. I only saw him from a distance during his occasional visits to Ghana until a week before I travelled to the U.S. for graduate studies. In 1992, Dr. Gyimah Labi (of blessed memory) invited me to his house one evening for me to play one of his piano pieces, Dialects 5, for Professors Nketia and Akin Euba, who was in Ghana as an External Examiner at the UG. After playing Dr. Labi’s piece, I played Nketia’s Volta Fantasy, and later informed him about my trip to the U.S. the following weekend. Nketia, in his typical and unselfish manner, invited me over to his house. In my first one-on-one meeting with him, I was heartened that such a legendary figure welcomed me, a nondescript diploma student, to his home. After two hours of quality time and conversations about my scholarly interests, Nketia went to his study and recorded an LP of Akan nnwonkorɔ songs, performed by Ntiribuoho Nyame Nkrabea and Mampong Kontonkyi led by Maame Yaa Adusa, on a 90-minute cassette tape for me. In addition, he gave me a copy of a lecture he gave in Hungary—“Developing Contemporary Idioms Out of Traditional Music,” published in the Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae (1982). By the time I flew from Accra to Amsterdam and from Amsterdam to Baltimore, I had read his article over a dozen times. To make a long story short, my Master’s Thesis at the West Virginia University was inspired and based on the issues Nketia raised and discussed in the above-named article while my doctoral dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh on compositional conventions in nnwonkorɔ was inspired by the cassette tape he gave me. As an ABD and when my application for the campus-wide Mellon Field Research Fellowship was turned down at the University of Pittsburgh, I called Nketia in Ghana for assistance. He assured me that he would be able to provide funding from the ICAMD for my field research if I were able to secure funding to purchase my plane ticket. When I arrived Accra, I met with Nketia and, true to his word, he immediately provided the funding that made it possible for me to embark on my field research in Asante and Brong Ahafo Regions in Ghana. The rest of my academic and scholarly path, as they say, is history. Nketia has been my field research advisor since those fateful summer months in 1997 to this day and, as recently as this past July-August, I went to his home several times to discuss my current project with him. Such is the mark of an outstanding teacher and mentor, for Nketia does not need to technically teach you in a classroom setting or preside over your graduate seminar in order to inspire you. A chance meeting like mine or any form of meeting (no matter how brief or long) or just engaging him in a casual conversation may set you off onto a life-altering career path and experience. It is with a deep sense of humility and honor that I write Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia’s citation for SEM.

Professor Emeritus J.H. Kwabena Nketia passed away on March 13, 2019, at the University of Ghana Hospital after a brief illness. He was 97 years old. The government of Ghana honored Prof with a state burial on Saturday, May 4, 2019, at the Forecourt of the State House. Prof may be gone but his works will continue to inspire generations all over the world. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

Donate now to the J.H. Kwabena Nketia Memorial Gift

Sign In

Featured News