Music J.H. Kwabena Nketia
Kwasi Ampene
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0294


Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia (b. 22 June 1921–d. 13 March 2019) from Ghana was the preeminent scholar of African musics, whose field research in the 1940s in varied ways formed the foundation of music scholarship in Africa and predated ethnomusicology as an academic discipline in the United States. A prolific writer, music educator, and composer, his publications on key topics in African musicology are pivotal to the transdisciplinary field of African studies. Born and raised in Asante Mampong, Nketia was tutored in two worlds of knowledge systems: his traditional musical environment generated and sustained a lifelong interest in indigenous systems, and his European-based formal education provided the space for scholarship at home and around the world. At the Presbyterian Training College at Akropong-Akwapem, he was introduced to the elements of European music by Robert Danso and Ephraim Amu. The latter’s choral and instrumental music in the African idiom made a lasting impression on Nketia as he combined oral compositional conventions in traditional music with compositional models in European classical music in his own written compositions. From 1944 to 1949, Nketia studied modern linguistics in SOAS at the University of London. His mentor was John Firth, who spearheaded the famous London school of linguistics. He also enrolled at the Trinity College of Music and Birkbeck College to study Western music, English, and history. The result of his studies in linguistics and history are the publications of classic texts cited in this bibliography. From 1952 to 1979, Nketia held positions at the University of Ghana including a research fellow in sociology, the founding director of the School of Performing Arts, and the first African director of the Institute of African Studies; and together with Mawere Opoku, he established the Ghana Dance Ensemble. This was a time that he embarked on extensive field research and documentation of music traditions all over Ghana. His students and the school provided creative outlets for his scholarly publications as he trained generations of Ghanaians. In 1958, a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship enabled Nketia to study composition and musicology at Juilliard and Columbia with the likes of Henry Cowell, and he came out convinced that his compositions should reflect his African identity. Further, he interacted with Curt Sachs, Melville Herskovits, Alan Merriam, and Mantle Hood, which placed Nketia at the center of intellectual debates in the formative years of ethnomusicology. From 1979 to 1983, Nketia was appointed to the faculty of the Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA; and from 1983 to 1991, to the Mellon Chair at the University of Pittsburgh, where he trained generations of Americans and Africans. Nketia returned to Ghana and founded the International Center for African Music and Dance (1992–2010) and also served as the first chancellor of the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology (2006–2016). Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia died in Accra and was honored with a state burial on 4 May 2019 by the Government of Ghana.

Theoretical Formulations

Nketia published papers, journal articles, and book chapters to underscore theoretical issues that captured his thoughts. In Nketia 1967, Nketia 1981, and Nketia 1984a, he wrote compelling scripts and articulated his vision for bridging the gap between ethnomusicology and African musicology. He was resolute that he could enhance the understanding and appreciation of African musics in ethnomusicology as detailed in Nketia 1962; but in Nketia 1985 and Nketia 1990, he was suspicious of his colleagues who wanted to use African musics ordinarily as a field lab for testing ethnomusicological hypothesis. Nketia 1984b and Nketia 1990 are his attempts at addressing the implications and the shortcomings of a global ethnomusicological canon for the performance arts in Africa. For over three decades, his textbook, Nketia 1974 (cited under Music-Language Analysis and Textbook), became the standard work for introductory classes in African musics in Africa, the United States, and Europe.

  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. “The Problem of Meaning in African Music.” Ethnomusicology 6.1 (1962): 1–7.

    DOI: 10.2307/924242

    Advocates for an integrated approach to the study of African musics. Should be understood within the momentous events following the founding of ethnomusicology as a discipline in the United States from comparative musicology in the 1930s to a combination of methodological approaches in cultural anthropology and musicology by the 1950s—a time when concepts, theories, and methods were subject to constant revision.

  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. “Musicology and African Music: A Review of Problems and Areas of Research.” In Africa in the Wider World: The Interrelationships of Area and Comparative Studies. Edited by David Brokensha and Michael Crowder, 12–35. Oxford and New York: Pergamon Press, 1967.

    Draws attention to some of the inherent problems, particularly structural, systematic, and contextual, which have emerged in musicological studies of African musical expressions. Should also be understood in the contexts of the historical timeframe that it was published.

  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. “The Juncture of the Social and the Musical: The Methodology of Cultural Analysis.” Worlds of Music 23.2 (1981): 22–39.

    Refocuses ethnomusicological methods to the study of music as opposed to the cultural studies of music. This article is Nketia’s response to the profusion of cultural studies in the United States in the 1970s.

  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. “The Aesthetic Dimension in Ethnomusicological Studies.” Worlds of Music 26.1 (1984a): 3–28.

    A didactic set of recommendations for his graduate students as well as colleagues emphasizing modes of inquiry critical to perception and cognition, and principles of interpretation and appreciation.

  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. “Universal Perspectives in Ethnomusicology.” Worlds of Music 26.1 (1984b): 3–28.

    Highlights theoretical and methodological challenges in cultural universals as a mode of inquiry.

  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. “Integrating Objectivity and Experience in Ethnomusicological Studies.” Worlds of Music 27.3 (1985): 3–22.

    Advocates for musical analysis that goes beyond basic descriptions of musical systems to the analysis of the experience of such systems as an understanding that comes from awareness of their social and cultural contexts.

  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. “Contextual Strategies of Inquiry and Systematization.” Ethnomusicology 34.1 (1990): 75–97.

    DOI: 10.2307/852357

    Critiques context and contextualization as theoretical constructs that are not shared across the board or approached in the same way in academia by all scholars.

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