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Celebrating the ‘Music of Africa’

BY: Kofi Otutu Adu Larbi

The Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (GAAS) held an evening of remembrance on Wednesday, April 10, for Emeritus Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia, the man who came to be known as the “Music of Africa”. A State funeral is to be held at the State House in Accra on May 4 for this great man.

Emeritus Prof. Kwabena Nketia was an internationally acclaimed composer, linguist, anthropologist, researcher, ethnomusicologist and writer. He had over 200 publications and more than 80 musical compositions to his credit.

In November 2017, I opened a write-up on him on my Facebook timeline with the following statement:

“In late September this year (2017), President Nana Akufo-Addo, on behalf of a grateful nation, paid tribute to 96-year-old Emeritus Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia at a State banquet. The President paid tribute to “one of the legends of the ages”.

Emeritus Prof. Kwabena Nketia was indeed a living legend.

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Amu Family tribute

Among the tributes paid at the GAAS event was one by the family of Ephraim Amu (Owura Amu) given by Misonu Amu, daughter of Owura Amu.
Owura Amu is said to have publicly declared Nketia to be his eldest son.

The two musical giants held each other in high esteem.

The Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences was established in 1959 at the initiative of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first Prime Minister (later President). It was originally known as the Ghana Academy of Learning.

There were 20 founder members including Prof. J. H. Nketia, then of the University of Ghana
Till his death, Nketia was the only surviving member of the original Fellows.

International icon

He was an internationally recognised icon on African music and oral literature. He held tenured positions at some of the most prestigious universities in the world, including the University of Ghana, Harvard University, University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Pittsburg. He was the Chancellor of the Akrofi Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture at Akropong Akuapem, the only fully postgraduate university in Ghana. I first saw him, from a distance, in the year 1966 or so when he spoke at a function at the then Mampong Akuapem Girls School headed by my mother. That was more than 50 years ago and even then he was a very distinguished person.

In June 2016, Emeritus Prof. Kwabena Nketia launched his latest book, Reinstating Traditional Music in Contemporary Contexts, at a well-attended function at the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences. This was to mark his 95th birthday.

Nketia never stopped reading and learning.

In reading his latest book, Reinstating Traditional Music in Contemporary Contexts, I found it interesting that Kwabena Nketia wrote about Owura Amu, R. O. Danso and Otto Boateng, the composer of Afe Wura Mo (Lord of the year, you have done well).

This is what Emeritus Prof. Kwabena Nketia wrote:

"Even though I held the music of Ephraim Amu and R. O. Danso in high esteem because it inspired and shaped my creative interest in traditional music, I appreciated the approach of another musician called Otto Boateng, who maintained the Seminary tune or Sterne model consistently alongside the Amu model and the indigenous traditional forms. As a school teacher based in Larteh, as well as choirmaster and organist of the local Presbyterian Church, he exercised the freedom to compose music in any of the above stylistic models, always ensuring that the text and tune were in consonance with the mood of particular occasions or moments of worship.

“When I heard his music performed by a new Singing Band that had just been inaugurated at Akropong, and later discovered that he was fast gaining a reputation as a composer of church hymns and lively songs at Larteh, I decided on my own initiative to visit him there to listen to more of his music. As there was a bush path from Akropong to Larteh, I strolled there one Sunday after church to pay him a visit."

I must add that I have a fairly good idea of where that bush path starts from Akropong and emerges at Larteh. The entry was close to the PTC Demonstration Middle School, where I was once a pupil. We heard stories of wild boars (bush pigs) roaming the forest and that was enough reason to discourage even the most adventurous ones among us from attempting to cross to Larteh on foot.

Kwabena Nketia writes about how he first met Owura Amu after the latter had returned from his studies at the Royal College of Music in London. Amu advised him to go to the traditional people and learn from them, adding that this was how he, Amu, had come to write music in the African idiom.

Nketia states that his encounter with Amu would make the greatest impact on him.

His (Amu’s) innovation was apparently ignited by the Principal of the College, a Scotsman, who asked him, 'Why aren't you teaching the students some of the songs I hear the labourers on campus sing?”

So he went immediately to the labourers to listen to their songs.

Fascinating stuff! Where would we be if we did not have the Nketias and Amus and Otto Boatengs and R. O. Dansos?

I dare say that these pioneers have provided the inspiration for the subsequent crop of great musicians we have in Ghana. I am referring to people like Agya Koo Nimo, Ken Kafui, Osei Korankye (Seperewa) and the young Witsfield Kwablah, to mention only a few. These have blended traditional music into contemporary contexts and our lives have been enriched as a result.

According to Nketia, "I did exactly what Amu advised me to do and went straight to one of my non-literate, non-Christian 'grandmothers' who happened to be a leader of the traditional Adowa-performing group at Asante-Mampong, my hometown, and asked her to teach me. She proved to be a wonderful teacher.”

“As there were no portable tape recorders then, she would sing each song once through, and then break it up line-by-line so that I could write it down. When the song ended, she would say, 'Read it to me.' She would check the accuracy of the text and then explain any word or phrase she thought I might not understand."

I could hardly contain myself with joy when I got to this passage in Kwabena Nketia's latest book. There is so much that we can learn from older and more experienced people. I was at Dansoman, a suburb of Accra where I lived for over 30 years to visit Mrs Emma Agyemang, widow of my friend Fred Agyemang and renowned author during the holiday period. Like her late husband, Auntie Emma is a repository of knowledge and history. I picked a lot from her during our conversation. Let us take advantage of the presence of experienced and knowledgeable elders and drink from their fountain before they pass on. Let us have teachable spirits. This is what Nketia, Owura Amu and others did and the results are there for all to see.
The Bible makes this point so clear and convincingly.

“Intelligent people are always ready to learn. Their ears are open for knowledge.”

The writer served as Advisor at the Bank of Ghana (to Governors Paul A. Acquah and K. B. Amissah-Arthur). He is a Legal and Management Consultant and author of five inspirational books. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.