Former chair of music department Nketia dies at 97

J.H. Kwabena Nketia, professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Music, died March 13 in Ghana, according to the New York Times. He was 97.

Nketia joined the music department 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 Pitt in 1991.

He was “the world’s leading scholar on African musical traditions,” according to The New York Times obituary 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.” 

After retiring from Pitt, he founded the International Center for African Music and Dance, an archive based at the University of Ghana.

A remembrance of Nketia was post on the music department website last month with reflections from Deane Root, professor and former chair of the department. See excerpts below:

“Upon his arrival at the University of Pittsburgh … 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,” Root said. “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 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 Professor 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, … 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. …

“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.”