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Timeline: Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia (1921-2019)

Timeline: Kwabena Nketia
Kwabena Nketia revolutionized the way the world looked at African music. He wrote over 200 publications, including his 1975 book "The Music of Africa" which has been translated into many languages.

On September 27, 2017, the nation of Ghana gathered to celebrate the life and music of 96 year old composer Kwabena Nketia. On that day it was declared that, “…Professor Nketia’s life symbolizes the evolution of our nation in the 20th century…a bridge between our indigenous culture and modern culture, non-literate and literate traditions, old and young artists, Ghana and Africa...” The event was also held to raise funds to archive Nketia’s lifelong work of ethnomusicology. According to the University of Ghana, Nketia had collected, “thousands of archival files and field notes on Ghanaian culture, history, language and arts.”

Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia was born in Mampong, Ghana in 1921. Though he showed musical talent from an early age, Nketia’s first love was teaching. He attended the Presbyterian Training College in Akropong, studying to become a teacher. At 23, Nketia was awarded a scholarship to travel to England and attend the University of London. He continued his education at BirkBeck and Trinity College.

In 1952, Kwabena Nketia returned to Africa and took a professorship at the University of Ghana and served as acting principal at the Presbyterian Training College, where he was once a student. He even found time to direct the International Centre for African Music and Dance.

Nketia was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1958, which allowed him to come to the United States and study at Columbia University, Julliard and Northwestern. The focus of these studies was around composition and ethnomusicology. Nketia went on to teach at many universities across the globe, including UCLA, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Brisbane, Australia and the China Conservatory of Music in Bejing, just to name a few.

Nketia revolutionized the way the world looked at African music, especially how African rhythms are transcribed. His methods are still used today. He wrote over 200 publications, including his 1975 book The Music of Africa which has been translated into many languages and is a text used around the world. Nketia was a brilliant researcher; he had close connections with Henry Cowell at UCLA and helped to develop the burgeoning field of modern ethnomusicology.

In 2009, he created the Nketia Music Foundation which was established to preserve, develop and promote Ghana’s creative legacy. The African University College of Communication later created the Kwabena Nketia Centre for Africana Studies.

Nketia passed away in 2019. His funeral was marked with performances of African music, drama and dance.

Learn more about the life and legacy of J. H. Kwabena Nketia and follow the Timeline.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.