J.H. Kwabena Nketia speaking at the
UCLA Archive symposium "Found
Sound," in celebration of the Archive's
40th anniversary, November 2001

Published: September 26, 2011
By: Donna Armstrong

J. H. Kwabena Nketia, a leading scholar of African music who assisted in the formation of the Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA, was honored in a two-day conference on Friday, September 23 and Saturday, September 24, 2011 in Accra, Ghana. “A Festschrift in Honour of Emeritus Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia,” took place on the occasion of Professor Nketia’s 90th birthday, and included presentations by UCLA Professor Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, graduate student Jesse Ruskin, and a host of UCLA alumni.

Nketia, who taught in the UCLA Department of Music in 1963 and from 1968 to 1983, also served as Chair of the Council on Ethnomusicology from 1979 to 1982. He went on to a position at the University of Pittsburgh, where he taught from 1983 to 1991. Professor Nketia joined the staff of the University of Ghana in 1952 and is currently Emeritus Professor and Director of the International Centre for African Music and Dance there. A congratulatory message from the African Music Section of the Society for Ethnomusicology, co-chaired by David Locke, Bode Omojola and Daniel Reed (statement written by Professor Kwasi Ampene) summarized Professor Nketia’s contributions:

          As the director of the Institute of African Studies and, later, the School of Music, Dance, and Drama at the University of Ghana in the late 1950s and 1960s, you institutionalized musical scholarship deeply rooted in Ghanaian traditions as a way of creating a national identity that became the model for the newly emerging independent nations in Sub‐Saharan Africa. Your African students became leading scholars and teachers in Africa, the United States, Europe, and Asia. At Legon (Ghana) you hosted and supervised students from all over the world who became leading scholars who established programs in African musicology.  Your influence multiplies as the chain of teachers and students of African music goes on and on. In the 1960s you laid the foundation of African musicology through your courses for the African Studies Program at UCLA. African Musicology broadly defined encompasses the study of musical expressions in Africa and the African Diaspora in all its complex manifestations. As professor in the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA and as the Andrew Mellon Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh from 1983‐1991, you continued the model established at the University of Ghana. You combined scholarship with performance by hiring expert musicians to direct African music ensembles and to serve as resource persons. Students who graduated from UCLA and Pitt went on to establish similar programs all over the USA. Published in 1974, your general introductory book, Music of Africa, became the standard text for decades.


In his written response, Professor Nketia recalled some of the greatest moments of his life and then expressed thanks for the blessings of a family that “made a big difference to someone who grew up as the only child of his non-literate parents but who never despaired because at every turn in his life, the assurance that the Lord will provide became a reality.”

At the conference, which took place in the Kwabena Nketia Conference Hall, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Professor DjeDje chaired a session on African art music and presented a paper entitled “Music and diasporic movements within West Africa: the pre-colonial era.” Graduate student Jesse Ruskin presented a paper entitled “From culture as theory to culture as practice: musical biography and individual creativity in twentieth-century African music scholarship.” UCLA alumni who presented papers were: Lois Anderson (Ph.D. Music 1968); Nissio Fiagbedzi (Ph.D. Music 1977); Barbara Hampton (M.A. Music 1972); Clarence Henry (Ph.D. Ethnomusicology 2000); Guangming Li (Ph.D. Music 2001); James Makubuya (Ph.D. Ethnomusicology 1995); Mosunmola Omibiyi-Obidike (Ph.D. Music 1972); Brenda Romero (Ph.D. Music 1993); and Craig Woodson (Ph.D. Music 1983).