In Memoriam: J.H. Kwabena Nketia

It is with deep sadness that we acknowledge the passing of Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus and former Chair of the Department of Music, J.H. Kwabena Nketia. Professor Nketia joined the Department of Music in 1982 and was appointed Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music in 1983. He was Chair of the Department from 1987-90 and retired from the University of Pittsburgh in 1991. He was “the world’s leading scholar on African musical traditions” according to The New York Times and “wrote hundreds of articles and books in English and Twi, a Ghanaian language, on topics ranging from music theory to folklore, as well as scores of compositions.” In 1964, he became the director of the University of Ghana’s new Institute of African Studies and then became the founding director of the School of Performing Arts. After retiring from the University of Pittsburgh in 1991, he founded the International Center for African Music and Dance, an archive based at the University of Ghana. He was 97 years old.

Professor, Emeritus Akin Euba, who followed Nketia as Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music, highlighted the important role composition played in Nketia’s development as a scholar.

Nketia was recognized the world over as the leading ethnomusicologist on Africa. What is not generally known is  that he also made  important contributions to modern African composition. He developed a  composition idiom which was directly derived from African traditional music. It is of interest that Nketia's career as an ethnomusicologist began when he went in search of material that would be useful in developing his idiom of composition.

Deane Root, Professor and former Chair of the Department of Music, reflects on the impact that Professor Nketia had on the Department of Music:

Upon his arrival at the University of Pittsburgh as the Mellon Professor of Music, Kwabena Nketia immediately took a strong role in the Music Department’s graduate faculty, and he remained at Pitt longer than the usual one- or two-year appointments of most of his predecessors.  In addition to anchoring a significant and long-lasting presence of sub-Saharan African research and teaching in ethnomusicology here, fostering the training of graduate students from Africa who have gone on to have productive careers in academia and beyond, his vision reshaped graduate study in music at Pitt and arguably throughout North America.

He viewed the surrounding region as a research laboratory for students in all subdisciplines of music scholarship, encouraging partnerships between the department and libraries, cultural institutions, and members of the ethnic communities for which Pittsburgh was so noted in the 1980s.  He and his students engaged actively with the community beyond campus.  In many ways, the Department’s recently signed Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate with the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Jazz program is one culmination of an inclination advocated by Prof. Nketia.

Perhaps an even greater impact was his belief that all students would benefit from taking courses and interacting with other student, faculty, and scholars beyond the borders of their own subdisciplines, not only within music (which was subdivided into Composition and Theory, Ethnomusicology, and Historical Musicology) but also with what he termed the “cognate disciplines,” ways of studying the world through the compatible perspectives of social history, sociology, anthropology, art history, and more.  To make that interaction possible, in the mid-1980s he co-designed the Pitt Music graduate curriculum of complementary proseminars in the three subdisciplines—along with a central proseminar on the methodologies and resources for research and scholarly communication at Pitt—that allowed students to gain perspectives on the histories and philosophies of music research in relation to the humanities and social sciences.  Pitt’s “integrated model” of graduate study attracted wide attention—even on campuses where separate departments existed for each of the subdisciplines in music—and has been widely emulated.

Kwabena Nketia was soft-spoken, with a warm personality and calm, humble style that gave no hint of his chieftain status in his native Ghana, nor of the many honors bestowed on him by his international colleagues in ethnomusicology.  He brought the very best out of those with whom he worked, whether they were students, friends, or faculty colleagues.  His endearing smile and friendly greeting are indelible memories for those fortunate to know him.

Read The New York Times obituary.

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