In memoriam: J.H. Kwabena Nketia, 97, UCLA leader in African musical traditions

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J.H. Kwabena Nketia
via African Musical Arts

Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia, UCLA professor emeritus of music and internationally renowned scholar and composer of African music, died March 13, 2019 at his home in Legon, near Accra, the capital of his native Ghana. He was 97.

Nketia is revered as having been the world’s leading scholar of African musical traditions. He composed 42 musical works and authored more than 200 publications. His seminal book, “Music of Africa” (Norton, 1974), which has been translated into Chinese, German, Italian and Japanese, is considered by many to be the primary source for understanding the basic characteristics of African music.

Nketia’s teaching career spanned several decades, including positions at Presbyterian Training College, Akropong; the University of Ghana, Legon; UCLA; and the University of Pittsburgh. At UCLA, where he was professor of music from 1969 to 1983, he taught a variety of courses on theories and methods in ethnomusicology as well as issues in African music. His vast knowledge, and the great joy and passion he brought to the subject matter, provided encouragement to generations of students.

“Nketia was an inspiration to both musicians and others, not only for his brilliance and work ethic as a researcher and composer, but also his compassion and humility,” said Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, UCLA professor emerita of ethnomusicology, who has long considered the world-renowned African scholar her mentor.

A native of Mampong Asante, Ghana, Nketia began his music education in 1937 at the Presbyterian Training College, Akropong. In 1944, he was awarded Britain’s Commonwealth Scholarship. The scholarship allowed him to travel to England to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He would later attend classes at Trinity College of Music and the University of London’s Birkbeck College where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1949.

In 1961, Nketia was appointed as the deputy director of the University of Ghana’s new Institute of African Studies. Three years later, he became the first African to serve as the institute’s director, as well as the founding director of the university’s school of performing arts. During that time, he also began to work closely with Mantle Hood, professor of music and founder of the UCLA Institute of Ethnomusicology (1960-1974), to bring master musicians from the University of Ghana, Legon, to UCLA.

The relationship between Nketia and Hood was established in 1959, when Nketia first visited UCLA on a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. With the assistance of Nketia’s students at the University of Ghana, Hood made a seminal ethnographic documentary film, “Atumpan: The Talking Drums of Ghana” (1964), which is still shown in classes on musical cultures of the world.

In the summer of 1963, at the invitation of UCLA’s then-director of African studies, James Coleman, Nketia taught what would become the first college-level course on African music at a U.S. university. His fruitful relationship with UCLA would continue to grow. At the urging of Hood and other faculty, he became a full-time professor in 1969, and was instrumental in the development of the university’s African music performance program.

After his retirement from UCLA in 1983, Nketia remained actively involved in numerous creative and academic endeavors. He was Andrew Mellon Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh until 1992. He also founded the International Centre for African Music and Dance at the University of Ghana, Legon, in 1993.

Nketia was the recipient of many international honors and awards, including the African Music Society Cowell Award (1958); the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Music of Africa (1975); the International Music Council UNESCO Prize for Distinguished Service to Music (1981); the 1997 Prince Claus Award for exceptional work in the field of culture and development; and the Distinguished Africanist Award from the African Studies Association (2000).

He was also honored with various awards in Ghana, including the Grand Medal or National Award from the Government of Ghana (1968); Ghana’s National Book Award (1977); an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Ghana (1993); the Entertainment Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana “Flagstar” Award (1993); Ghana Gospel Music Special Award (2003); and the Order of the Star of Ghana (2006), the highest award given by the government of Ghana to any individual who has helped the cause of the country in one way or the other.

Considered a national treasure for his promotion of Ghanaian music and culture, Nketia will be honored by the Ghanaian government with a State Burial, and interned in the same military cemetery in Accra as Bosomuru Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General.

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