Emeritus Professor Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia is a Ghanaian writer, ethnomusicologist and composer. Professor Nketia is one of the world's most respected authorities on African music and aesthetics. He has been called a "living legend" and his work in the field of music has been globally acknowledged. He is to African music what Bartok is to Western music. The diverseness of his works coupled with his world acclaimed brilliance in the arena of African music and arts sets him apart from his contemporaries.
Emeritus Prof. J.H. 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
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In 1951 Kwabena Nketia married Lillie Agyeman-Dua, a young teacher from the Ashanti royal lineage of Mampong. They have four children. Prof. Emeritus J.H. Kwabena Nketia two daughters are Professor Akosua Adoma Perbi and Rev. Dr. Priscilla Naana Nketia
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 World War II, 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. In 1949, he managed to take additional courses at Birkbeck College, University of London and, crucially, music courses at Trinity College of Music, London, to obtain his Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1958 he left for the 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
Professor 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 the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, he was invited to stay at the university to help teach African languages.
Returning to Ghana in 1949, he worked as a teacher of music and English 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.
With his career taking shape, Nketia began a family. In 1951, he married his childhood friend, Lily Agyeman-Dua, a young teacher from the Ashanti royal lineage of Mampong that later worked for Ghana Broadcasting Corporation as a producer and eventually an assistant controller of programs. One year after their union, Lily 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, but is now deceased. Rev. Dr. Priscilla Naana Nketia is their third child, also became a lawyer. Nketia's youngest child, Kwam, lives in the United States, where he is a businessman.
In 1962, Emeritus Professor J H Nketia, 97, who 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; 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).
Professor J H Nketia in addition served as distinguished Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies at Michigan State University, East Lansing; Visiting Professor at the China Conservatory of Music, Beijing, and Langston Hughes Professor at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.
He is also a Foundation Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts & Sciences; Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain, and Ireland; Honorary Member of the International Music Council (IMC-UNESCO); Honorary Fellow Of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Honorary Member of the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA); Member of the International Jury for the Proclamation by UNESCO of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and Board Member of the National Commission on Culture, Ghana.
Nketia, 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 inducted 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
JH Nketia literary output is matched by an equally impressive record of active 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 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 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).
Nketia received 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, 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". Also in attendance were former President Jerry Rawlings and his wife Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings, and representatives from former President John Dramani Mahama and former President John Agyekum Kufuor.
Besides official honours, numerous ensembles, individuals and organisations in Ghana pay homage to this living legend by organising concerts in his honour. The Nketia Music Foundation was created in 2009 to promote the conservation and development of Ghana’s Creative Legacy in contemporary contexts, and the use of the works of Emeritus Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia and other composers for the development and growth of music and culture.
Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia is indeed a prolific writer and a prominent composer. He has over 200 publications and more than 80 musical compositions to his credit. In 1944, Nketia completed his first monograph, an anthology of Akan songs published in 1949 by Oxford University Press.
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. His widely-read book: Music of Africa (1974), recently translated into Chinese, have had a strong impact on the study of music and musical cultures in sub-Saharan Africa.
Similarly, his diverse oeuvres of compositions include choral works, solo songs with piano accompaniment, and instrumentals works. Some of his well-known choral works include Adanse Kronkron, Morbid Asem, Monna N’Ase and Monkafo No. Other vocal works with piano accompaniment include Yaanom Montie, Onipa Dasani Nni Aye, Onipa Beyee Bi, Yiadom Heneba, Mekae Na Woantie, Maforo Pata Hunu, Obarima Nifahene and Asuo Meresen.
He wrote for a variety of combinations of modern and local African instruments. Works in this category include the Builsa Work Song (1960), Dagarti Work Song (1961), At the Cross Roads (1961), Owora (1961), Volta Fantasy (1961) and Contemplation (1961). He also wrote extensively for Western orchestral instruments, like the flute, violin, cello, percussion and piano. But it is through Nketia’s pace-setting works for traditional African instruments that his genius is acclaimed.
His work evinces not only a continuing interest in the refinement of ethnomusicological theories and methods but also a deep commitment to the development of distinctively African musicology, concerned with the pragmatic applications and consequences of scholarship.
Prof. Nketia’s work to reconcile the melodic and rhythmic elements of folk music with contemporary music spurred a new kind of compositional technique for African musicians and academics, worldwide. Other pioneering work include the transcription of many Ghanaian folk songs in a manner virtually free from Western influences.
His concept and interpretation of time and rhythmic patterns in Ghanaian and other African folk music were revolutionary and became standard 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 undermined Amu’s theory of a constant basic rhythm (or pulse) in African music, and generated some debate, Nketia maintained that the constant use of triplets in a duple time signature was misleading. Today, many scholars around the world have found Nketia’s theory very useful in transcribing African music.
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