J.H. Kwabena Nketia: Some Muses Of The Musical

JH Kwabena Nketia’s humility, upon all his greatness, was arresting and it knew no differentiations.
His passage is a huge cultural bereavement for even the philistines.

I had many interesting discussions with him on music and the Gold Coast social life of the 1950s and ‘60s.

These were mostly at the old offices of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, and occasionally at his home with each encounter, having its own gentle underlining.

Though the new Institute - Kwame Nkrumah Complex - has its main hall deservedly named for him, he concentrated his efforts building the impressive J.H. Nketia Archives at the old site until two weeks before he passed on.

After visits, he would see me off to the car park, an old Akan traditional practice not normally extended by the aged to the young.

It would be when my car engine started that we would end our conversation. On one such visit, he remembered what he said he always wanted to alert me to but would forget: the office arrangement in the 1970s.

He showed me where the office of my father, a research associate; was and that of their good mutual friend, Ivor Wilks, my godfather, a Welsh and British philosopher-historian from Cambridge who had come to the University of Ghana.

Wilks worked with Thomas Hodgkin and Kwame Nkrumah (and others) in building the Institute of African Studies.

The three offices in Professor Nketia’s nostalgic pep-tour were next to each other and their research interests the same in the main- history and in his case, of ethnic music as core.

The three - he did not tell me this though - were the only child of their parents.

My father passed first in his 70s and Wilks, who ultimately retired after Oxford and as emeritus professor at the Northwestern University in Evanston in the United States, followed in his 80s giving in 1996, the prestigious University of Ghana, Aggrey-Fraser-Guggisberg Memorial Lectures.

Professor Nketia closed it in at 90s.

I, however, developed my own relationship with him.

We were together in the United States in 2000 when the African Studies Association, the biggest area studies group in North America, gave him its highest- the Distinguished Africanist Award for academic life achievement.

With a standing respect from the thousands of scholars from around the world, he choked in his acceptance remark. And it was in the dedication name- his grandmother and first teacher of the ballads and forms of Asante music in Mampong, and all the good techniques that had with time, made him a foremost authority on African ethnomusicology in the world.

Working relationship

I had the privilege of working with him for a week in Kumasi when I was production advisor to the Moving Vision television company of the UK and which was filming for eight months, a panorama of the Kingdom of Ashanti.

Together with the late Professor Albert Mawere Opoku (Professor Abena Busia calls the two- Mr Music and Mr Dance), they were the experts on the performing arts part and interpreted the dance movements and their historical evolution as the contracted dancers and drummers dazed for the cameras.

When I called the late Professor Adu Boahen also in Kumasi about our production and those I was engaged with, he drove to our hotel.

Between drinking Club beer after another with Professor Opoku, indulged in their own dance steps; Professor Nketia, a teetotaller was with soda water bottle by his side, a smiling face but all in onerous simplicity with the dancers.

This pioneer triumvirate elite is such rare that this nation may not see for generations to come.

That week and its massive visual recording is part of the over 600 hours of heritage materials now archived with the Moving Vision in Wales in addition to Nketia’s already phenomenal contribution to ethnic and palace music of Asante and Akan and, their poetic undertones.

On that working visit, he launched my book and company television documentary on Yaa Asantewaa at the cultural centre and was generous to do a 10 p.m. heaped review of it with OTEC FM.

It was no wonder that scores of individuals had come to the studio afterwards to see the face of the extraordinary composer.

Years later when Professor Adu Boahen passed on, I went to see him at the institute about a GBC television obituary discussion with the Nigerian historian, Toyin Falola, and David Owusu-Ansah of James Madison University for a musical funeral dirge.

He easily recommended Nkradae by Ephraim Amu, the deep meta-philosophical lyric of his befriended mentor.

He told me that at every point in time, every soul in one form or another would have to engage in Nkradae - a farewell gesture or departure announcement from the earth.

Obarima Nifahene.

Onipa Beyee Bi

The writer is economic development specialist and visiting scholar at the University of Johannesburg