Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia

Ethnomusicologist and Composer

Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia is a famous Ghanaian writer, ethnomusicologist and composer. He is one of the world’s most respected authorities on African music and aesthetics. Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketiahas been called a “living legend” and his work in the field of music has been globally acknowledged. What Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia is to an African music is what Bartok is to Western music. The diverseness of his works braced with his world acclaimed brilliance in the arena of African music and arts sets him apart from his contemporaries.

His Birth

Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia was born on June 22, 1921 at Mampong, then a little town in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. His father, Akwasi Yeboa, and mother, Akua Adoma, were trader in a nearby village called Effiduase.

He was born and raised in Asante Mampong initially by his parents and, upon the passing of his father, he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents. Nketia credits them for sowing the seeds of his “basic musicality” and his “musical kinship” in Akan traditions. With the help of his grandfather, Opanyin Kisi Amoa, and grandmother, Yaa Amankwaa, Nketia attended Mampong Asante Presbyterian Junior and Senior Schools.


After completing his primary and middle school education, he gained admission to the Presbyterian Training College at Akropong Akwapim. At the training college, 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 World War II, Nketia was among the first batch of twenty Ghanaian 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. In 1949, he managed to take additional courses at Birkbeck College, University of London. Also, the music courses at Trinity College of Music, London, to obtain his Bachelor of Arts degree. In the year 1958, he left for United States through Rockefeller Fellowship and attended Columbia University (studying with Henry Cowell), the Julliard School of Music, and Northwestern University to do courses in musicology and composition.

Career and life

Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia’s has long and distinguished career, with far-reaching impact, and diverse engagements with many aspects of music in Africa. When his scholarship term ended at University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, he was invited to stay at the university to help teach African languages. He Returned to Ghana in 1949 and worked as Music and English teacher at the Presbyterian Training College in Akropong, Ghana and simultaneously worked for the Bureau of Ghana Languages. This was before he became a research fellow in African studies at the University College of Ghana, and later progressing to a full professorial chair in the new University of Ghana in 1963.

J. H. Kwabena Nketia

With his career taking shape, Nketia began a family. He married a young teacher from the Ashanti royal lineage of Mampong, Lillie Agyeman-Dua, in the year 1951. Lillie Agyeman-Dua later worked for Ghana Broadcasting Corporation as a producer and eventually an assistant controller of programs. One year after their marital union, Lillie had their first daughter, Akosua Adoma Perbi, who became a Professor in the history department at the University of Ghana, legon. The couple’s second child, Kwabena, was a lawyer and now deceased. Rev. Dr. Priscilla Naana Nketia his third child became a lawyer. Nketia’s youngest child, Kwam, lives in the United States, where he is a businessman.

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In the year 1962, Emeritus Professor Joseph H. K. Nketia, who has retired from the University of Ghana in 1979, was appointed as the first African Director of a School of Music, Dance and Drama, which was established as part of the Institute of African Studies at the University. Nearly four decades after his “official” retirement, he continues to share his knowledge, experience and reflections through a rigorous schedule of publications and lectures.

Other positions he has held include:

  • Acting Principal, Presbyterian Training College, Akropong-Akuapem,
  • Professor in the Music Department at UCLA in 1968,
  • the Horatio Appleton Lamb Visiting Professor of Music at Harvard University (1972),
  • Visiting Cornell Professor at Swarthmore College,
  • Visiting Professor at the University of Queensland in Brisbane-Australia, and
  • the Andrew Mellon Chair of Music at the University of Pittsburgh (1983-1991).

Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia in addition served as distinguished Professor of Integrative Studies at Michigan State University, East Lansing. Visiting Professor at the China Conservatory of Music, Beijing. He also served as Langston Hughes Professor at the famous University of Kansas, Lawrence.

J. H. Kwabena Nketia

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Nketia has honour of being a Foundation Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts & Sciences; Honourary Fellow Of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Member of the Pan-African Writers Association; Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain, and Ireland; Honourary Member of the International Music Council (IMC-UNESCO); Member of the International Jury for the Proclamation, the programme by UNESCO for the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and Board Member of the National Commission on Culture, Ghana.

Joshep J. K. Nketia’s interested in promoting African music on a local and global scale, created the Ghana Music Society in 1958 to help bring together individuals throughout the country and abroad who were interested in this topic.

In November 2006, Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia was called up into office as the first Chancellor of The Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture, Akropong-Akuapem. Prof. J.H. Kwabena Nketia is currently the Director of the International Centre for African Music and Dance (ICAMD), based at the University of Ghana, Legon-Accra, Ghana. He travels extensively, and serves on the advisory panels of many top organizations.

Awards and Honours

Nketia literary productivity is balanced by an equally impressive record of effective involvement in initiatives and ventures in academic excellence, nationally as well as internationally. He has won several awards locally and globally. This include the Companion of the Order of the Star of Ghana, the Grand Medal of the Government of Ghana (Civil Division), a DLitt (Honoris Causa) of the University of Ghana, the Ghana Book Award, ECRAG Special Honour Award (1987), Ghana Gospel Music Special Award (2003), and the ACRAG Flagstar Award (1993).

Other international awards he has received include the Cowell Award of the African Music Society; the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, (His general introductory book, Music of Africa, published in 1974, won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award); the IMC-UNESCO Prize for Distinguished Service to Music; the 1997 Prince Claus Award; the year 2000 Distinguished Africanist Award of the African Studies Association of the USA for Life-long Devotion to African Studies, and DLitt (Honoris Causa) of the University of Ghana..


He has been honoured 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 Anita Afonu, the Ghanaian film producer, and commissioned by the Goethe Institute. 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).

J. H. Kwabena Nketia
J. H. Kwabena Nketia in his home in Madina, a suburb of Accra with Judith Opoku-Boateng during an interview. 2016

Nketia did receive the Companion of the Order of Star of Ghana from the government of Ghana in the year 2000, and finally in 2013, the Chartered Institute of Marketing Ghana (CIMG) recognized Nketia with the 25th National Marketing Performance Special Award.

A festival was held in celebration of his life and achievements at the Kwabena Nketia Centre for Africana Studies at the African University College of Communications, Adabraka-Accra for his 96th birthday. This is done under the patronage of Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, who paid tribute to Nketia as “one of the legends of the ages”. Among other dignitaries in attendance were former Ghana’s, President Jerry Rawlings; Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings, his precious wife and also representatives from the former President John Dramani Mahama and former President John Agyekum Kufuor.

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Besides official honours, numerous ensembles, individuals and organizations in Ghana pay homage to this legend by organizing concerts in his honour while he was alive. The Nketia Music Foundation was created in the year 2009 in order to promote the development and conservation of Ghana’s Creative Legacy in contemporary contexts. The foundation also adopt the use of the works of Joseph H. K. Nketia and other composers for the development and growth of music and culture. 

His work

Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia was indeed a prominent composer and a prolific writer. He has more than 200 publications and over 80 musical compositions to his credit. In the year 1944, he completed an anthology of Akan songs, his first monograph that was published in 1949 by Oxford University Press. In his festschrift published in year 1989, Jackie Djedje listed two hundred publications and forty-two compositions. Above all, the sheer heterogeneity of his publications betrays his ardent interest in interdisciplinary studies.

There are books on Akan folktales, drum poetry, fiction, poetry, plays, monographs, translations of science materials for Twi readers, and a plethora of scholarly articles. Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia mostly-read book: Music of Africa (1974) that has been translated into Chinese, have had a strong impact on the study of musics and musical cultures in sub-Saharan Africa.

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In addition, Kwabena’s diverse oeuvres of compositions include solo songs with piano accompaniment, choral works, and instrumentals works. Some of his renowned choral works include:

Some other works in vocal with piano accompaniment include:

  • Onipa Dasani Nni Aye,
  • Yaanom Montie, 
  • Onipa Beyee Bi,
  • Maforo Pata Hunu,
  • Yiadom Heneba,
  • Mekae Na Woantie,
  • Obarima Nifahene and
  • Asuo Meresen.

Joseph H. K. Nketia has written for a variety of combinations of modern and also local African instruments. Some of his works in this category include:

  • the Builsa Work Song (1960),
  • At the Cross Roads (1961),
  • Dagarti Work Song (1961),
  • Owora (1961),
  • Volta Fantasy (1961) and
  • Contemplation (1961).

Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia also wrote extensively for Western orchestral instruments, like the cello, percussion, flute, violin, and piano. But it is through Nketia’s pace-setting works for traditional African instruments that his genius is acclaimed.

Professor J.H Nketia at 96 with his grand son M.anifest

Joseph H. K. Nketia works demonstrate a progressing interest in the refinement of ethnomusicological theories and methods. Likewise a deep commitment to the development of a distinctively African musicology, concerned with the pragmatic applications and consequences of scholarship.


Prof. Nketia’s work to connect the rhythmic pattern and melodic elements of folk music with contemporary music. In shot, this has promoted the development of a new kind of composition technique for African musicians and academics, worldwide. Other leading work of Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia include the transcription of many Ghanaian folk songs in a such a way that virtually free from Western influences.

Joseph H. K. Nketia concept and interpretation of rhythmic patterns and time in Ghanaian and other African folk music were revolutionary, and has become be the driving force for researchers and scholars around the world. For example, Nketia introduced the use of the easier-to-read 6/8 time signature in his compositions as an alternative to the use of duple (2/4) time with triplets used earlier by his mentor, Ephraim Amu.

Although this practice has lessen the effectiveness of Amu’s theory of a constant basic rhythm (or pulse) in African music, and brought about some debate. Nketia maintained that the consistent use of triplets in a duple time signature was giving the wrong impression. Many scholars around the world today have found Nketia’s theory very useful in transcribing African music.

Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia, the renowned Ghanaian ethnomusicologist and composer died at the Legon Hospital in Accra, Wednesday (13th of Match 2019), morning after short illness, He was 97 years of age.       

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