Life and Profile of Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia

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Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia is a famous writer, ethnomusicologist, and composer of Ghanaian origin. Obviously, he is one of the world’s most respected authorities on African music and aesthetics. He is popularly called by name “living legend” has contributed a lot to African music and his work in the field of music is globally recognized. In fact, what Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia is to African music can be related to what Béla Bartók 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.

Family Background

Prof. Emeritus Joseph Kwabena Nketia was born on June 22, 1921, at Mampong, a little town at that time in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. And His father, Opanin Akwasi Yeboa, and mother, Maame Akua Adoma, were nonliterate and trader in a nearby village called Effiduase. He took a Christian and baptismal name Joseph at standard five. This was one of the criteria to further his education because all the schools then were own and operated by churches. Specifically, that is how he became Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia. Of course, he was born and raised by his parents in Asante Mampong at the beginning. However, upon the demise of his father, he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents, Nana Nyarko alias Wurukye.  In fact, he gave them praise for their contribution to his “basic musicality” and “musical kinship” in Akan traditions.

Education
Professor Emeritus J. H. K. Nketia
Nketia_photo_courtesy_UCLA_Ethnomusicology_Archive_40th_anniversary_2001Todd Cheney/UCLA

In 1928, when he was seven years old, his grandmother assisted his mother to register him in class one. Therefore, he was a year older than other students in the same class who were six years olds. However, the school promoted him to the class a year ahead due to his exceptional performance in his class.

After his primary, his mother was unable to support him to further his education. Therefore, she makes a heartfelt request to Yaw Gyima (Kwabena’s uncle) who admitted to paying for his Senior School fees. Yaw Gyima asked Kwabena to move in with him and be of service in order to fulfill his promise.  Kwabena did so and was of help to his uncle in written (instead of licensed letter-writers) and reading of letters. Also, he carried out house cores designated to him. At last, he completed his middle school education and very grateful to his uncle.

Afterward, he gained admission to the Presbyterian Training College and Theological Seminary located at Akropong Akwapim in Ghana. The training college marked the beginning of his journey into the rudiments of Western music in addition to learning how to play the harmonium. There he met Dr. Ephraim Amu who advised him to focus on the traditional music of his people and explore the originality in it. Thereafter he rigorously understudied the local music of Akan and Asante people from his grandmothers and complied them.

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Ida Caroline Ward a British from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) came to Ghana for a visitation. She saw his musical compilation called Funeral Dirges of the Akan People and was impressed. In the long run, Kwabena was given a Commonwealth scholarship to study phonetics at the School of Oriental and African studies in England. He left Ghana for London in 1944 during World War II along with the first batch of twenty Ghanaians who were awarded the scholarships.

Besides studying linguistics (phonetics) at the School of Oriental and African Studies with the scholarship, he added extra courses at Birkbeck College, the University of London in the year 1949. Also, he took additional music courses at Trinity College of Music, London, where he obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree before he returned to his home country, Ghana. Afterward, in the year 1958, he left for the United States with the aid of Rockefeller Fellowship to study music. There he attended Columbia University, Julliard School of Music, and Northwestern University.

Career and life

Professor Emeritus J. H. K. Nketia
Professor Emeritus Professor Nketia During the interview

Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia’s has a great and dignified career, with significant impact, and diverse commitment with many facets of music in Africa. In fact, his literary productivity is balanced by an equally impressive record of effective involvement in initiatives and ventures in academic excellence, nationally as well as internationally. Moreover, he did travel extensively and served on the advisory panels of many top organizations.

After he has done with his scholarship phase at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, he honoured an invitation to teach African languages at the university. Thereafter, he returned to Ghana and joined Presbyterian Training College in Akropong where he taught Music and English. At the same time, he was working for the Bureau of Ghana Languages.

Specifically, Kwabena joined the sociology department at the old University College of Ghana as a research fellow in African studies in 1952. Eventually, he rose to the rank of senior research fellow in 1959 and later associate professor in 1962. Finally, in 1963, he became a full professor at the new University of Ghana.

Due to the reputation, he has gained through his artistic work, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) fully tenured him in 1969. Nevertheless, they still permitted him to commute between the University of Ghana and the University of California. Subsequently, he was appointed as the director of the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ghana in 1965. That makes him the first African Director of the institute, the post he held from 1965 to 1979. After that, he retired from the university and moved fully to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1979.

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Alfred Patrick Addaquay and Professor Nketia at the British Council, Ghana
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Professor Kwabena actively served at the University of California and retired from the university at age of 65 in 1986. Afterward, he joined the Department of Music at the University of Pittsburgh as Andrew W. Melon Professor. He joined the University of Pittsburgh as the chairman of the Department and because of the retirement age of 70.

Absolutely, Professor Kwabena is iconic and his impact is well acknowledging in several halls of academia. Besides being a residential professor at the above-mentioned university, he has served as a visiting professor at several universities around the globe. These include Horatio Appleton Lamb Visiting Professor of Music at Harvard University. And also Langston Hughes Visiting Professors at the famous University of Kansas, Lawrence. As well as Visiting Professors at the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing. In addition, he has served as John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Integrative Studies at Michigan State University. And finally, he was a visiting professor at Cornell University, Swarthmore College, the University of Brisbane in Australia, and many more.

After retiring from the University of Pittsburgh, he returned to Ghana in 1992 and founded the International Center for African Music and Dance (ICAMD). Specifically, this center is based at the University of Ghana, Legon in Accra. Also, Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia always goes there every Tuesday for weekly office hours till he bid this world farewell. Unquestionably, he kept sharing his knowledge and reflections through meticulous lectures and publications till his last day on earth.

Awards and Honours
Life and Profile of Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia
Prof. J. H. Kwabena Nketia

Professor Emeritus Joseph Kwabena Nketia has won several awards locally and globally in recognition of his noteworthy contributions to the society. Among other awards is the Companion of the Order of the Star of Ghana he received in the year 2000. That award is the Grand Medal of the Government of Ghana (Civil Division). Also, he was honoured with the Ghana Book Award, and ECRAG Special Honour Award (1987). Likewise, Ghana Gospel Music Special Award (2003), and the ACRAG Flagstar Award (1993) were also received by the iconic ethnomusicologist.

Furthermore, he received an international award like the Cowell Award of the African Music Society and also the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award among the few. In particular, the general introductory book, Music of Africa, published in 1974, won him the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. Also, he received the 1997 Prince Claus Award and the IMC-UNESCO Prize for Distinguished Service to Music. Similarly, he picked up the year 2000 Distinguished Africanist Award of the African Studies Association of the USA for Life-long Devotion to African Studies.

Along with others like David McAllester, Mieczyslaw Kolinski, William Malm, and Mantle Hood. He was recognized at the SEM 50th Annual Meeting in Atlanta-Georgia in 2005 as one of the pioneers of the discipline. The two festschrifts, African Musicology (that is Current Trends in1989 and Discourses in African Musicology in 2015) was in Professor Emeritus Joseph Kwabena Nketia’s honour.  Also, a video documentary tagged African Maestro and title The Life and Work of Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia by famous Ghanaian film producer, Anita Afonu and commissioned by the Goethe Institute was produced to honour the Prof.

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At the launches Prof. Kwabena Nketia Centre for Africana Studies African University College

During his 96th birthday celebration, a grand festival was held at the Kwabena Nketia Centre for Africana Studies at the African University College of Communications, Adabraka-Accra. The main purpose of the festivals was to celebrate his life and achievements. The festival held under the patronage of Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, Ghana’s President. The president paid tribute to Nketia as “one of the legends of the ages”. Among other dignitaries present at the festival were former President Jerry Rawlings and his wife Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings. Also, representatives from the former President John Dramani Mahama and former President John Agyekum Kufuor were also on the list.

Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia was formally admitted to the office of the first Chancellor of the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture, Akropong-Akuapem in 2006. He also is in receipt of the DLitt (Honoris Causa) of the University of Ghana. The Chartered Institute of Marketing Ghana (CIMG) recognized him with the 25th National Marketing Performance Special Award in 2013. Besides formal honours, different choral groups, ensembles, individuals, and organizations pay homage to Prof. Emeritus Kwabena Nketia in various ways. Many organized public concerts in his honour during his lifetime.

His work
Life and Musical Profile of Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketiaa
Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia

Marting Luther once said that “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works”. This is actually the story of Professor Emeritus Joseph Nketia and his contributions to the world of African art music. Obviously, Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia is a phenomenal composer and an outstanding writer. He composed the school anthem of the University of Ghana and some other piece popularly use in schools and churches today.  

Specifically, he has over two hundred (200) publications and more than eighty (80) musical compositions to his name. One of his works is an anthology of Akan songs, that he completed in the year 1944. The book was his first monograph and was published by Oxford University Press in 1949. Also, in 1974, he published “Music of Africa”, the book known as his most read and has also been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and German. Truly, the book had a marked influence on the study of kinds of music and musical cultures in sub-Saharan Africa.

Moreover, he published books on Akan folktales, drum poetry, fiction, poetry, plays, monographs, translations of science materials for Twi readers, and a plethora of scholarly articles. Professor Nketia actually set the pace for African traditional music and instrument in his work. He also wrote extensively and passionately for Western orchestral instruments, like the violin, cello, flute, and piano. But, his pace-setting works for traditional African instruments actually showcase his brilliance.

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Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia Book The Music Of Africa Cover
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Indeed, Professor Kwabena Nketia is a phenomenal composer with compositions that showcase Africanism. In brief, the diverse oeuvre of his compositions includes solo songs with piano accompaniment, choral, and instrumentals works. Specifically, some of his well celebrated choral works include:

  • Monna N’Ase,
  • Adanse Kronkron,
  • Morbid Asem, and
  • Monkafo No

Similarly, some of his well-known vocal work with piano accompaniment are:

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

Furthermore, Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia genuinely wrote music for a variety of combinations of modern and also local African instruments. Likewise, some of his well-known works in this category are:

  • The Builsa Work Song (1960),
  • At the Cross Roads (1961),
  • Dagarti Work Song (1961),
  • Owora (1961),
  • Volta Fantasy (1961) and
  • Contemplation (1961).
Life and Musical Profile of Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia
Professor Emeritus J. H. Kwebena Nketia

Professor Joseph H. K. Nketia’s works demonstrate a progressing interest in the refinement of ethnomusicological theories and methods. Likewise, an extensive responsibility to the development of an easy to recognize African musicology, involved with the practical applications. He worked to connect the rhythmic pattern and melodic elements of African folk music with contemporary music. Obviously, this has promoted the development of a new kind of composition technique for African musicians and academics worldwide. Other leading works of Professor Kwabena Nketia include the transcription of many Ghanaian folk songs in such a way that virtually devoid of Western influences.

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In addition, Professor Nketia’s approach and clarification of rhythmic patterns and time in African folk music and particularly Ghanaian music involving a dramatic change. Again, the concept has become the driving force for researchers and scholars around the world. In his approach, Professor Nketia initiated the utilization of the easier-to-read 6/8-time signature in his compositions. The 6/8-time signature was a substitute to the use of duple (2/4) time with triplets used earlier by Ephraim Amu who is his mentor.

Truly, his approach of using a 6/8-time signature has lessened the effectiveness of Amu’s theory of a constant basic rhythm (or pulse) in African music and brought about some debate. Nketia emphasized that the consistent usage of triplets in a duple time signature was giving the wrong perception. Consequently, many scholars around the world presently have realized the usefulness of Nketia’s theory in transcribing African music. To Professor Kwabena Nketia‘s credit is the creation of Ghana Music Society. He created the Ghana Music Society in 1958 because of his special interest in promoting African music locally and globally. The aim of the society is to bring people home and abroad who actually have an interest in African music together.

Personal life
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Professor J. H. Kwebena Nketia and Lillie Akosua Agyeman-Dua

Nketia began a family with the love of his youth when his career has started taking shape. He exchanged the marriage vows with a young Lillie Agyeman-Dua, on the 6th of January 1951. Lillie Akosua Agyeman-Dua is a teacher from the Ashanti royal lineage of Mampong. She later worked for Ghana Broadcasting Corporation as a producer and eventually an assistant controller of programs.

God bless their marital union a year later with a beautiful daughter named Akosua Adoma Perbi. She later became a Professor in the history department at the University of Ghana, Legon. They later have their second child named Kwabena Yeboa who later became layer and passed away before his father. The third child is Rev. Dr. Priscilla Naana Nketia, a lawyer.  Nketia’s youngest child, Kwame Gyima is the last born of Nketia’s child, he’s a businessman and lives in the United States.

Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia, bid this world farewell at the Legon Hospital in Accra. This happened on the morning of Wednesday 13th March 2019 after he loses the battle to the short illness. He survived by Akosua Adoma Perbi, Naana, Nana Adjoa, seven grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. He will always be remembered for his dedication to honesty, integrity, and commitment to loyalty and hard work.


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One thought on “Life and Profile of Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia

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    The iconic musician in Ghana and Africa as a whole.

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