Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia’s Original Compositions now Resonate with His Passing and Life
Composers have been described as moralists, social actors, cultural intellectuals, cultural patriots, nationalists, poets, mediators, and reflexive modernists, agents of change, holders of their communities’ consciences, and cultural repositories and custodians.
Because Professor Kwabena Nketia was not just a composer but also an ethnomusicologist par excellence, who allowed knowledge and pre-compositional resources he acquired from his ethnographic research to shape his composition of intercultural African art music works, we may also call him an epitome of a creative ethnomusicologist, a term coined by Professor Akin Euba, one of Prof. Nketia’s favorite students.
After listening to recordings or live performances of Prof. Nketia’s compositions, one can see how vividly all these labels capture the salience of his creative work to his audiences.
As my tribute, I invite mourners to join me in pondering over the lyrics of a few of Prof. Nketia’s art and part songs. I am positive we could all experience the profound affective impact of the compositions he wrote to eulogize the passing of a distinguished man of integrity within his community, for example, or to express his philosophical thoughts about the inescapable predicament of man’s mortality. We can see his nostalgia for cherished Ghanaian cultural practices and virtues of neighborly warmth, pragmatic traits of real friendship, and how songs he based on inspiration from the scriptures continue to speak to us.
The songs I wish to privilege are (1) “Yaanom Montie” (“My People Listen!”), (2) “Wohu te sen?” (“How Are You Doing”), (3) “Onipa Beyee bi” (“Man Can Accomplish only Part”), (4) “Wo nya Amane” (“When you Have a Case”), (5) “Adanse Kronkron” (“Holy Witness”), and (6) “Monkamfo no” (“Let us Praise Him, Our Father”). More telling, I wish to draw attention to how we can construct new meanings for these Prof. Nketia songs when we read them to resonate with the composer’s own passing and life. So, let us situate the songs within the context of his death, and explore the songs’ reflexive relationship to the composer and their capacity for truth.
1) “Yaanom Montie!” (“My People, Listen!”)
The great valuable tree at the center of the town under which our people gather has been uprooted. Where will they gather again in the future? In spite of this unfortunate situation, we will not give up, we are not afraid at all. Because of our Creator God’s presence, we will not be afraid at all. God who takes care of the animal without a tail will take care of us.
Prof. Nketia, today you are the mighty tree that has fallen. Yes, since that silent Wednesday, when the invisible but devastating hurricane has blown, the entire world, including — Ghanaians, other Africans, and global academic communities of ethnomusicologists, the Society of Ethnomusicology, and the International Council for Traditional Music; African musicologists; and the many beneficiaries of your scholarly legacy from African Studies, African American Studies, and Africana Studies — have heard about how you, the legendary nester of African ethnomusicology, have joined your ancestors. Indeed, we have all heard the heart-breaking news through multiple outlets and from around the whole world. Some Ghanaians still remember GBC radio’s dissemination of Mr. Geoffrey K. Boateng’s rendition of this beautiful art
song in his tenor voice which you accompanied on the piano. Since the news of your passing, our response to this song is: Yes, we have heard about the fall of the mighty tree! We are still thinking of how we will miss that mighty tree, metaphorically speaking. Yet, Professor, thank you for consoling, encouraging, and reminding us not to be afraid at all. Rather, we will look up to God to take care of us.
2) “Wohu te sen?” (“How Are You Doing?”)
How are you? When day breaks, I will come to see you. When it is night, I will come to check on you to see how you are faring. How are you? I am someone’s child. Remember me in the morning, and at night, remember me. Neighbor is waiting for you. My brother, members of the royal family, we are brothers to each other. Remember me!
According to Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia, what provoked his composing of “Wohu te sen” was nostalgia—how he missed home while studying in a foreign country. Routine daily exchange of greetings, caring for one another, concern for the well-being of a fellow human being, and being our neighbors keepers are implicated in initiating the greeting: “How are you?” However, Prof. experienced how other cultures do not even initiate or respond to such greetings. Hopefully, Ghanaians will appreciate this and other virtuous cultural practices and values in which we express our communality and neighborly love. Should we sing the same song today and direct it to the composer, I am sure he will answer that he is at a better place rejoicing with Dr. Ephraim Amu, Professor Nicholas Z. Nayo, and several other composers, academics–faculty colleagues, and his students from the University of Ghana, UCLA, and University of Pittsburgh, who have taken the lead and are already in the metaphysical realm. More telling, his joy will overflow after meeting his dear wife and children. Prof., you never got tired of sharing about your famous and knowledgeable grandmother, the lead singer of an adowa group, who was your first teacher of traditional African music and the most influential cultural repository on your creative and scholarly life. We imagine your great reunion with her.
3) “Onipa Beyee Bi” (“Man can do only part”) [He cannot accomplish (or do) everything in his/her life before his death.]
Even at 97, we know you had plans of what to do next before you were called to eternity. Unlike some people, longevity did not hinder your continuous productivity. You wrote two books at ages 90 and 95, respectively; attended concerts on (1) one of your friend’s compositions at 94, and (2) your own works at the National Theater by Harmonious Chorale at age 95, and (3) while at 96, you were a conspicuous Guest of Honor at the Ghana Police Central Band’s Centenary commemorative concert. Your participation in the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) Study Group on African Music’s 2nd International Symposium, held at the University of Ghana in August of 2018, vividly lingers in the memories of many African music scholars who were excited to have met you. How can we forget that you were 97 when you, the grandfather of African musicology, participated in three sessions of the symposium, including “Meet the Elders”? Prof. Nketia, what you have accomplished is phenomenal, making your enormous
service to humanity an exemplary model. A few weeks ago Prof. Avorgbedor, one of your former students, shared a video clipping of a student from UG’s Music Department singing your own “Onipa Beyee bi” at your house in Madina, near Accra. Truly, death remains an avoidable predicament for us all.
4) “Wonya Amane” (“When You Have a Challenge”)
Human being, be careful of your friends. When you are in trouble or (have a case), most friends will leave you alone. When you have a challenge, your best friend will help you carry the burden. You will see your true lovers when you are in needy situations. Then you will know whether someone loves you genuinely. True friendship is a great asset and value for everybody. Waite until you have a “case,” then you will know your true friends.
Prof. Nketia’s “Wonya Amane” reverberates with the adage: “A friend in need is a friend indeed,” and explores the pragmatic truth and the best means of ascertaining those who are faithful lovers and trusted friends. Prof., this is one of your most catchy–rhythmically vibrant, melodically and harmonically soothing, and poetically moving Senkudwom (song with keyboard accompaniment) that addresses the practicalities of life. While the Winneba Youth Choir had given a great rendition of it, the 2017 National Theatre performance by three gentlemen from the Harmonious Chorale who sang with their great voices, along with a confident keyboard accompanist was very powerful. Performing in the presence of the composer himself accentuated the song’s affective impact. Prof. Nketia, we know you were a true friend of several individuals and groups including Osei Korankye, Ghana Dance Ensemble, Ghana Police Central Band, Winneba Youth Choir, and even me. You supported us with your knowledge and wisdom, resources and your strength and presence. We remain sincerely grateful for your sincere friendship.
5) “Adanse Kronkron” (“Holy Witness”)
Being holy witnesses is an important mandate God has given us. We must manifest it in all the world. God, strengthen us to witness to the whole world. God, help us!
Although “Adanse Kronkron” is a sacred choral work concerned with witnessing for Christ, as charged per the Great Commission to make the whole world disciples of Christ, the many leadership, path-finding, groundbreaking agency of the legendary Prof, Nketia in church, state, and academia can he considered as witnessing. Indeed, he led a virtuous life as a patriotic statesman, devout Christian, and a phenomenal world-renowned scholar. What a legacy of witnessing!
6) “Monkamfo No” (“Let us Praise Him–Our Father”)
Let us praise Him, our Father God who takes care of us. We depend absolutely on Him. Everything that we do and have comes from You our Creator. The father of all mankind. We
depend on You. For life to go well, it depends on you. God the source of our lives, we thank You.
Professor Nketia’s part song “Monkamfo no” employs all of us to give thanks to God our father, creator, and provider. Yes, we all need to take some moment off our sadness and mourning to show our gratitude to God for the precious gift of Professor Kwabena Nketia to humanity. For, in spite of all his accomplishments, Prof. Nketia never forgot to thank his maker. I vividly remember his thanksgiving service held at his church in Madina (near Accra) when he turned 90 in 2011. In addition, all whose lives Prof. Nketia has touched, in diverse ways, could consider thanking him for all that he has accomplished, and as lucky beneficiaries of his legacy, we thank him for his exemplary life and work. Personally, I sincerely thank Professor Emeritus Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia for his friendship, influence, and inspiration which have shaped my career as a younger Ghanaian composer and ethnomusicologist.
By George Worlasi Kwasi Dor, University of Mississippi