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19.03.2019 Feature Article

Obituary: Emeritus Professor J H Kwabena Nketia

Obituary: Emeritus Professor J H Kwabena Nketia

Professor Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia, who has just joined his fathers in another sphere of possible existence, was, in his life-time, what can be described as African culture incarnate.

He was trained as a musicologist in Great Britain and America. But he so well synthesised what he was taught by foreigners with what he had absorbed in his hometown, Asante Mampong, and at Manhyia Palace (to whose cultural resources he was given access by the late Otumfuor Nana Sir Agyemang Prempeh the Second, Asantehene, that his music was enriched by both forms, instead of being deformed by their conflicting demands.

I remember one­­ of his compositions very well, and for a good reason. It was entitled "Yaanom Montie!" (Listen, Folks!) and the reason why I remember it so well is that it was the signature tune of one of the most important radio programmes ever broadcast in Ghana: The Singing Net.

The brain-child of Henry Swanzy, an ex-BBC man seconded to Ghana to be Head of Programmes of the nascent Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, The Singing Net was the first programme of the GBC devoted entirely to creative writing, especially short stories and poems.

How did Henry Swanzy, a Briton who did not speak Twi, come to choose such a monumental example of Ghanaian traditional music as Yaanom Montie!, as the signature tune of a programme devoted to creative writing in Ghana?

Obviously, he might have sought advice, but such was the quality of that advice -- if seek it he did -- that at the "near-independence" stage of our country's cultural development, hardly anyone who looked upon education not as a means of merely obtaining employment, but as a treasure trove that helped to fill one's intellect with untold wealth from new worlds, could neglect to listen to the programme on the radio. 

Andrew Amankwaa Opoku; Macneill Stewart; Joyce Addo, Frank Parkes and a host of highly gifted writers, were enabled by The Singing Net to showcase their talent to thousands of people who would not, otherwise, have known that there were “budding writers" in Ghana. (The product of my own very first attempt at writing fiction, a short story entitled Tough Guy In Town, had its “outdooring” occur on The Singing Net!)

Nketia's catchy tune with soft undertones, hinting at the mysteries of story-telling, Yaanom Montie! played its part in hooking listeners to the programme, and creating in them, a longing for more of the same. Henry Swanzy did not disappoint them. Week after week, just after dinner in most homes, Yaanom Montie would be heard, and a captivating story or moving poem, would expose the intellectual riches of one Ghanaian to his or her fellow countrymen.

To be perfectly frank, the version of Yaanom Montie that was aired on the radio was a bit flawed! After the piano opening (which was beautifully played by Nketia himself) a guy with a nice voice began to sing the lyrics. Unfortunately, he was one of those irritating singers who pay more attention to modulating the music than enunciating the words! So, although I heard -- and liked! -- Yaanom Montie week after week after week, I had no idea what the song was really about! Yaanom Montie what?Gyama…. dot dot dot! I strained my ears to catch the words, but I ended up having to wait impatiently for the story/poem that followed the first few bars of the song.

It wasn't until I confessed to Professor Nketia -- not long before he passed -- that he led me into the "secret" of what the song was about! It was in fact the "coded" communication, presumably by a court official, to his cabal of officials, of the gravest of news, namely, that "The Great Neem Tree" under whose shade they all gathered when the Scorching Sun was at its  hottest, had been "uprooted."

 (In fact, Prof Nketia disclosed later in his life that the song was composed to mark the passing of one of the greatest kings in the history of colonial Gold Coast. No wonder the song said mysterious things to my heart, for although I did not know this, its subject, Nana Sir Ofori Atta The First, Member of the Executive Council of the Gold Coast and Member of the Legislative Council, was the King of Akyem Abuakwa, my state!)

Here are the bits of the song that caught my ear properly:

"Yaanom montie.... [Listen Folks]…

 “Gyama ahia yen ahia yen!” [It looks as if a great calamity has befallen us!]

…. Doo-dah ….doo-dah (unintelligible to me)

“Dedua kesier a esi abonten no (?) atutu... [The mighty Shade Tree of the streets has fallen]

“Ehe na yebegye mfre oo?” [Where can we relax to enjoy a cool breeze?]


 “Oboadier wo ho yi” [But because The Creator Is still there]

Yensuro obiara!...[We  fear no-one!]

Yensuro kora kora! [We have no fear at all!]

Doo-dah! Doo-dah!

Yes -- the signature tune of the greatest creative programme of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, was an imagined musical conversation between – Court Executioners!  I bet many other secret and droll instances of unintended irony were the order of the day in those colonial days!

Kwabena Nketia was born at Mampong Asante on 22 June 1921. Which means that when he departed this life on 13 March 2019, he had reached the ripe old age of One Century minus Three years -- 97!

He had a great sense of humour -- he revealed to me that on enrolment day at his primary school at Asante Mampong, he had not yet been baptised. Yet, as was the custom in those days, he was asked what his "Christian" name was!  Unwilling to delay or even imperil his enrolment, he -- quick-as-a-flash -- said: "Joseph Hanson" (the Christian names of his best friend at the time!)

This early confrontation of the two worlds he inhabited -- between a foreign culture and that of his own nation -- was to dog Prof Nketia all his life. He trained as a teacher at the Akropong Presybterian Teacher Training College and was a favourite student of one of the best-known song-writers teaching at Akropong at the time, R O. Danso.

Now, Akropong was a religious institution that largely frowned on African culture -- it expelled Nketia's music teacher, the musical genius, Owura Ephraim Amu, for dressing in "native cloth" to preach in church! (Most probably it was also not happy that Amu composed so many African patriotic songs. Praise the heavens that he didn't allow himself to be intimidated by then church, for with what could we ever replace Yen Ara Asaase Ni or Asem Yi Di Ka?)  

Amu taught his students the main components of African music, including the drum and percussion elements that facilitated rhythmic dancing -- practices that some missionaries no doubt denounced as "remnants of African fetishism."

Anyway, when Nketia returned to Ghana from his studies in the United Kingdom, he was fortunate enough to be told by Amu that he should find "his own voice".   Amu warned him not to imitate anyone else -- "not even me!" he emphasised, with his customary honesty.

Nketia took the advice to heart, and that's why he impresses everyone who hears his musical compositions or reads his works on African music. This is what an expert on African music says of Nketia’s musical prowess:


style="margin-left:0in; margin-right:0in">“J.H.K. Nketia has been described as the natural successor to Amu as the leading Ghanaian composer. His musical career is distinguished by a desire to compose, anchored on a thorough study and investigation of traditional African music. As he explained… it was because of his desire to compose works culturally relevant to Africa that he developed an interest inethnomusicology, with a view to understanding the principles of African music. His initial interest in African music was to develop one of the most distinguished careers in this study. 

After an initial interest in linguistics as a student of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Nketia studied music at the Birkbeck College, also of the University of London.

“He continued his musical studies at the Trinity College of Music London, and then the Julliard School of Music, New York and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. His teachers included Henry Cowell (composition), Cari Sachs (ethnomusicology), Alan Merriam and Melville Herskovits (anthropology and ethnomusicology). He has taught music in such institutions as the University of Legon, Ghana and the University of California, Los Angeles. He currently heads the International Centre for African Music and Dance, Legon.

“Nketia has written vocal and instrumental works. His choral works include Adanse Kronkron (Divine Testimony) Monkamfo No(Praise Him) and Wose Aseda (You Deserve to be Thanked). While his first work, Adanse Kronkron is similar to the early works of Amu in its hymn-like character, contrapuntal writing is featured in works like Monkamfo No and Wose Aseda. According to Nketia, the use of counterpoint ‘gives room for imagination and invention’.

“Nketia has also written substantially for the piano. His works for the piano include Playtime, At the Crossroads, Libation, Meditation, Dagarti Work Song, Builsa Work Song, Volta Fantasy and Contemplation. These are short quasi-programmatic works in which Nketia evokes the melo-rhythmic and textual features of Ghanaian instrumental music.” UNQUOTE



 The President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, no less, described Nketia as “one of the legends of the ages” at a special event held in 2017 to celebrate the achievements of Professor Nketia. According to President Akufo-Addo, “one runs out of adjectives trying to describe this noble Ghanaian. A few come readily to mind, though – composer, ethnomusicologist, writer, scholar, instrumentalist..."

President Akufo-Addo added that he was confident that if the nation applied the works of Professor Nketia in helping to reclaim the past in order to nourish the present and seize the future, “we shall be further emboldened to construct a modern, democratic nation based on equity, respect, and inclusion. We will then build a new Ghanaian civilization, a Ghana Beyond Aid, a new flowering of Ghanaian art and culture.”

Prof Nketia, whose alma maters included the Presbyterian Training College, Akropong-Akwapim; the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and Trinity College of Music, London, has been described as "easily the most published and best-known authority on African music and aesthetics in the world". He is credited with "more than 200 publications and 80 musical compositions".

Prof. Nketia was honoured with many awards in Ghana, including 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). He was a Member of Honour of the International Music Council.

International awards he received include the Cowell Award of the African Music Society; the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, for The Music of Africa (1975); the IMC-UNESCO Prize for Distinguished Service to Music; the 1997 Prince Claus Award; and the Distinguished Africanist Award of the African Studies Association of the USA (2000).

In 2009, the "Nketia Music Foundation was formed "to promote the conservation and development of Ghana’s Creative Legacy in contemporary contexts, and the use of the works of Emeritus Prof. J. H. Kwabena Nketia and other composers for the development and growth of music and culture".

One of his greatest achievements was his nurturing of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana (as the Institute's Director) to become one of the best African studies centres in the world.

Ghana will miss him.

Cameron Duodu
Cameron Duodu, © 2019

Martin Cameron Duodu is a United Kingdom-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a career as a journalist and editorialist. Author column: CameronDuodu

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