Professor Emeritus Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia, who has just joined his fathers in another sphere of possible existence, was, in his life-time, what can only be described as African culture incarnate.
He was trained as a musicologist in Great Britain and America. But he so well synthesised what he was taught by foreigners with what he had absorbed in his hometown, Asante Mampong that his music was enriched by both forms, instead of being deformed by their conflicting demands.
I remember one of his compositions very well, and for a good reason. It was entitled “Yaanom Montie!” (Listen, Folks!) and the reason why I remember it so well is that it was the signature tune of one of the most important radio programmes ever broadcast in Ghana: The Singing Net.
The brain-child of Henry Swanzy, an ex-BBC man seconded to Ghana to be Head of Programmes of the nascent Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, The Singing Net was the first programme of the GBC devoted entirely to creative writing, especially short stories and poems.
How did Henry Swanzy, a Briton who did not speak Twi, come to adopt such Yaanom Montie! as the signature tune of a programme devoted to creative wiritng in Ghana?
Obviously, he might have sought advice, but such was the quality of that advice — if seek it he did — that at the “near-independence” stage of our country’s cultural development, hardly anyone who looked upon education not as a means of
obtaining employment, but as a treasure trove that helped to fill one’s intellect with untold wealth from new worlds, could neglect to listen to the programme on the radio.
Andrew Amankwaa Opoku; Macneill Stewart; Joiyce Addo, Frank Parkes and a host of highly gifted writers, were enabled by The Singing Net to showcase their talent to thousands of people who would not, otherwiuse have known that there were “budding writers” in Ghana.
And Nketia’s catchy tune, Yaanom Montie! played its part in hooking listeners to the programme, and creating in them, a longing for more of the same. Henry Swanzy did not disappoint them. Week after week, just after dinner in most homes, Yaanom Montie would be heard, and a captivating story or moving poem, would expose the intellectual riches of one Ghanaian to his or her fellow countrymen.
To be perfectly frank, the version of Yaano Montie that was aired on the radio wasa bit flawed! After the piano opening (which was apparently played by Nketia himself) a guy with a nice voice began to sing the lyrics. Unfortunately, he was one of those singers who pay more attention to the music than the words! So, although I heard — and liked! — Yaanom Montie week after week after week, I had no idea what the song was asking me to listen to!
It wasn’t until I confessed to Professor Nketia not long before he passed that he led me into the “secret” of what the song was about: the “coded” communication, by a court official to his cabal of officials, of the gravest of news, namely, that “The Great Neem Tree” under which they all harboured when the Sun was at its hottest, had been “uprooted.”
“Yaanom montie…. [Listen Folks] Dedua kesier atutu… [The mighty Neem Tree has fallen] Oboadier wo ho yi [But because The Creator Is still there] Yensuro obiara…[We have no fear of anyone] Yensuro kora kora! [We have no fear at all!] Yes — the signature tune of the greatest creative programme of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, was an adapatation of — An Executioner’s song!
Yes — such droll instances of unintended irony were the order of the day in our lives at the time.
Kwabena Nketia was born at Mampong Asante on 22 June 1921. Whcih means that when he departed this life on 19 March 2019, he had reached the ripe old age of One Century Minus Three years — 97!
Nketia had a great sense of humour — he revealed to me that when he was
first enrolled in primary school at Asante Mampong, he had not yet been
baptised. Yet, as was the custom in those days, he was asked what his
“Christian” name was! Unwilling to delay his enrolment, he, as
quick as a flash, said “Joseph Hanson!” (he gave them two for the
price of one: these were the Christian names of his best friend at the time!)
This early confrontation of the two worlds he inhabited — between a foreign culture and that of his own nation — was to dog Prof Nketia all his life. He trained as a teacher at the Akropong Presybterian Teacher Training College. This was a religious institution that frowned on African culture — it expelled Nketia’s music teacher, Owura Ephraim Amu, for dressing in “native cloth” to preach in church! (Most probably it was also not happy that Amu composed so many African patriotic songs. We must praise the heavens that he didn’t allow himself to be intimidated by then church, for with what could we replace Yen Ara Asaase Ni or Asem Yi Di Ka?)
Amu taught his students the main components of African music, including the drum and percussion elements that facilitated rhythmic dancing — practices that some missionaries no doubt rejected as “remnants of African fetishism.”
Anyway, when Nketia returned to Ghana from his studies in the United Kingdom, he was fortunate enough to be told by Amu that he should find “his own voice”. Amu warned him not to imitate anyone else — “not even me!” he emphasised, with his customary honesty.
Nketia took the advice to heart, and that’s why he impresses everyone who hears his musical compositions or reads his works on African music.
The President of the Republic, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, no less, described Nketia as “one of the legends of the ages” at a special event held in 2017 to celebrate the achievements of Professor Nketia.
According to President Akufo-Addo, “one runs out of adjectives trying to describe this noble Ghanaian. A few come readily to mind, though – composer, ethnomusicologist, writer, scholar, instrumentalist…”the President said.
President Akufo-Addo added that he was confident that if the nation applied the works of Professor Nketia in helping to reclaim the past in order to nourish the present and seize the future, “we shall be further emboldened to construct a modern, democratic nation based on equity, respect, and inclusion. We will then build a new Ghanaian civilization, a Ghana Beyond Aid, a new flowering of Ghanaian art and culture.”
Propf Nketia, whose alma maters included the Presbyterian Training College, Akropong-Akwapim; the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and Trinity College of Music, London, has been described as “easily the most published and best-known authority on African music and aesthetics in the world”. He is credited with “more than 200 publications and 80 musical compositions”.
Nketia was honoured with many awards in Ghana, including the Companion of the
Order of the Star of Ghana, the Grand Medal of the Government of Ghana (Civil
Division), a DLitt (Honoris Causa) of the University of Ghana, the Ghana Book
Award, ECRAG Special Honour Award (1987), Ghana Gospel Music Special Award
(2003), and the ACRAG Flagstar Award (1993). He was a Member of Honour of the International
International awards he received include the Cowell Award of the African Music Society; the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, for The Music of Africa (1975); the IMC-UNESCO Prize for Distinguished Service to Music; the 1997 Prince Claus Award; and the Distinguished Africanist Award of the African Studies Association of the USA (2000).
In 2009, the “Nketia Music Foundation was formed “to promote the conservation and development of Ghana’s Creative Legacy in contemporary contexts, and the use of the works of Emeritus Prof. J. H. Kwabena Nketia and other composers for the development and growth of music and culture”. One of his greatest achievements was his expert nurturing of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana (as the Institute’s Director) to become one of the very best African studies centres in the world.
Da yie, Owura Kwabena! (Rest In Peace Master Kwabena).
Ghana will miss you badly.