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J. H. Kwabena Nketia, 97, Scholar of African Music, Dies

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J. H. Kwabena Nketia, 97, Scholar of African Music, Dies
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J.H. Kwabena Nketia, 97, Pre-eminent Scholar of African Music, Dies

By Giovanni Russonello

March 19, 2019

J. H. Kwabena Nketia, a Ghanaian ethnomusicologist and composer who became the world’s leading scholar on African musical traditions, died on March 13 in Legon, a suburb of Accra, the capital of Ghana. He was 97.

His death, at a hospital, was confirmed by the composer Fred Onovwerosuoke, who studied with Dr. Nketia and became a close friend.

In a career stretching back to the 1950s and continuing into his 90s, Dr. Nketia wrote hundreds of articles and books in English and Twi, a Ghanaian language, on topics ranging from music theory to folklore, as well as scores of compositions. He held professorships at the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Pittsburgh; and the University of Ghana, where he helped shape the curriculum after Ghana broke free from British rule.

His 1974 book, “The Music of Africa,” is widely considered a definitive historical study, and “Ethnomusicology and African Music,” a collection of his writings published in 2005, is used in classrooms throughout Africa and across the world.

As a composer, Dr. Nketia wrote music for choirs, solo voices and instrumental groups that used both African and Western instruments. His music was particularly informed by the sounds of Ghana, but he integrated influences from across the African continent.

In his academic work, too, Dr. Nketia espoused a Pan-African ideology even as he insisted on the multiplicity of sub-Saharan cultures.

“The most important characteristic of this family of musical traditions is the diversity of expressions it accommodates, a diversity arising from different applications of common procedures and usages,” he wrote. “The music of Africa, like its language, is, so to speak, ‘ethnic-bound.’ Each society practices its own variant.”

Dr. Nketia devised ways of using Western techniques to document and analyze African music while preserving its indigenous characteristics. He revolutionized how the rhythms of sub-Saharan African music are transcribed, employing the 6/8 time signature rather than a simple two-beat measure. And his studies went beyond rhythmic analysis. He made a point of championing the diversity of harmonic languages used throughout Africa as well.

“He always wanted to ensure that the West knew about the diversity of our harmonic language,” Dr. Onovwerosuoke said.

Robert Farris Thompson, a professor emeritus of art history at Yale University, wrote in an email that Dr. Nketia was “one of the finest scholars in all of post-colonial Africa,” adding, “He showed that the African history of music was a sacred tradition revealed.”

Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia was born on June 22, 1921, in Asante Mampong, Ghana. In the Akan language, Kwabena is the name for boys born on Tuesday. An only child, he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents after his father died. He credited his grandparents as his first music teachers.

He received training in European music theory as a high school student at the Presbyterian Training College in southeastern Ghana. In 1944, he was one of 20 Ghanaians in the first class awarded Britain’s Commonwealth scholarship, which sent him to England to study linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He also took classes at the Trinity College of Music and Birkbeck College at the University of London.

In 1952, back in Ghana, he accepted a research fellowship in African studies at what is now the University of Ghana and traveled the country recording musical performances and festivals. He began developing interdisciplinary programs at the university that explored the intersections of language, dance, music and folklore.

Dr. Nketia traveled to the United States for the first time in 1958, on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship; over the course of a year he studied at Juilliard, Columbia University and Northwestern University, and developed relationships with such prominent American musicians and folklorists as Charles Seeger and Henry Cowell.

Dr. Nketia performed “The Republic Suite,” perhaps his defining musical composition, at Ghana’s Republic Day Concert on July 1, 1960, celebrating the election of his friend Kwame Nkrumah as the nation’s first president. The suite’s formal elements aligned it with Western classical music, but many of its melodies were drawn from traditional songs recognizable to Ghanaian listeners.

Dr. Nketia became the deputy director of the University of Ghana’s new Institute of African Studies in 1961. Three years later, having attained tenure as a full professor, he became the first African to serve as the institute’s director. Soon after, he became the founding director of what is now the School of Performing Arts, and he filled its faculty and research positions with prominent Ghanaian artists, including the playwright Efua Sutherland, the author Ama Ata Aidoo and the choreographer Albert Mawere Opoku.

In 1992 he founded the International Center for African Music and Dance, an archive based at the university.

Dr. Nketia was the recipient of many awards and worked with a number of international cultural organizations, including Unesco’s International Commission for a Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind.

Tireless in his scholarship, he delivered lectures at universities on five continents well into his later years and published his last book, “Reinstating Traditional Music in Contemporary Contexts,” in 2016, on the eve of his 95th birthday.

He is survived by three daughters, Akosua Adoma Perbi, Priscilla Naana Nketia and Adjoa Nketia; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. His wife and their two sons, Kwabena Yeboa Nketia and Eric Kwame Gyimah Nketia, died before him.

Dr. Nketia’s grandson Kwame Ametepee Tsikata, a famed Ghanaian rapper known as M.anifest, remembered him as “very generous with all his knowledge and his wisdom.”

“He had an incredible intellectual curiosity,” Mr. Tsikata said, “until the end.”
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