Professor J.H. Kwabena Nketia and the humanities

BY: Nana Susubribi Krobea Asante
His works have been translated into several international languages
His works have been translated into several international languages

On April 4, 2019, I delivered the 60th Anniversary Lecture of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences entitled: “Sixty Years of Scholarly Excellence: Achievements, Challenges and Prospects: Humanities Perspectives”.

In that lecture, among other things I invited Fellows of the Academy to revisit the concept of scholarly excellence in the African context and paid the following tribute to the late Professor Kwabena Nketia.

Prof. Kwabena J.H. Nketia, in my respectful opinion, personifies the academy’s 60-year endeavours towards scholarly excellence in the creative arts and the humanities generally.

The legendary ethnomusicologist, poet and composer deserves the highest commendation for converting “dondology” into a respectable academic discipline, for articulating and projecting African ethnomusicology throughout the academies of the world, for his productive interface between African music and western art forms, for his own artistic creations and for his exemplary role as a persistent and powerful exponent of reinstating African tradition in contemporary context.

He has the rare distinction of having learned his craft from traditional sources and then perfecting it to international acclaim.

His works have been translated into several international languages and he has served as a visiting scholar to major centres of learning throughout the world.

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Here in Ghana, he played a prominent role in the building of institutions.

He was one of the Foundation Fellows of the Academy, Director of the Institute of African Studies, Director of the International Centre of Music and Dance, President of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences and finally, Chancellor of the Akrofi Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture, Akropong. He played a critical role in the evolution of the academy.

In addition to enhancing the scholarly stature of the academy through his internationally acclaimed works, he initiated and sustained two highly successful series of memorial lectures, namely the Ephraim Amu Memorial Lectures and the Asante-Opoku-Reindorf Memorial Lectures.

As indicated above, he delivered the inaugural Ephraim Amu Memorial Lecture.

He also delivered the first two Asante-Opoku-Reindorf Memorial Lectures which were established in collaboration with Akrofi Christaller Institute.

Significantly for this lecture, the subjects of the first two lectures were:

1. Oral Tradition in a New Mode: the Shaping of Indigenous Scholarship and literary style, and

2. Referential modes of meaning as strategies in oral communication.

Finally, he delivered the second Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Lecture on “Kwame Nkrumah and the Arts”. Prof. Nketia’s contribution to Ghana was not restricted to academia.

The Emeritus Professor was responsible for the introduction of traditional elements such as the Fontomfrom, Kete, Atumpan and Mmensuon into state celebrations of Ghana’s independence in March 1957, as well as that of the attainment of republican status in 1960.

Prior to this, state functions took the form of military tattoos.

Also in 1960, his celebrated orchestral piece, “Republican Suite for flute and Piano”, was performed at a concert requested by Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah as part of the programme of activities for the first Republic Day celebration.

Indeed, the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the academy’s scholarly endeavours is synonymous with the celebration of Kwabena Nketia’s scholarly contributions to this and other academies of the world.

Prof. Nketia deserves the accolade of “one of the Founding Fathers of Ghana”.

While the politicians captured the headlines with flamboyant denunciations of colonial rule, Kwabena Nketia unobtrusively laboured towards cultural liberation and the construction of the foundation of the African personality.

I have been privileged within the past 20 years to have been associated with Prof. Nketia as his Vice-President of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, as his host in one of his creative performances and as chairperson of several events honouring him, including the launch of his last book “Reinstating Traditional Music in Contemporary Contexts” just three years ago when he was 94.

In calling for a redefinition of scholarly excellence to accommodate local requirements, our cultural heritage and traditional systems of knowledge, we are merely pointing to a path already trodden by Kwabena Nketia.

In his last book, he recounted the story of an irate student’s protest at the sudden intrusion of dondo into the rarified atmosphere of Legon as follows:

“In the early days of the establishment of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, an irate student in the English Department who lamented the sudden intrusion of the otherwise serene campus by the sounds of traditional African drums, including those of the dondo, a double-headed armpit-squeeze drum, could not keep it to himself.

“Tracing the noise to the Institute of African Studies, he wrote a letter of protest to the Vice-Chancellor, denouncing the intrusion of Dondology on campus as a worthwhile academic discipline. Such blatant lowering of standards, he stressed, must not be encouraged in our national university.

Amused by this ‘big joke’, the then Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Alex Kwapong of blessed memory, came to the institute to share it with me as he roared with laughter.

Naturally, like him, I was unperturbed by the zeal of the Anglicised student, even though I liked this new-fangled terminology, ‘Dondology’.”

Kwabena Nketia refined “dondology” and conveyed it to the international community.

My humble prayer is that all scholars of the humanities should follow the inspiring example of our legendary scholar and distil some aspect of their discipline that could also be added to the corpus of human knowledge.

The writer is also known as Samuel Kwadwo Boaten Asante and is Past President of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences.