Reinstating Traditional Music in Contemporary Contexts: Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian’s Lifelong Encounters with the Musical Traditions of Africa
Reinventing tradition has indeed been the lifelong pre-occupation of Emeritus Professor J.H. Kwabena Nketia, as a musicologist, linguist, composer, performing artist, teacher and advocate. The book gives opportunities for a fluent narration of a complex story, by the protagonist himself. Such intellectual biographies are rare, particularly when they span a period of 90 years, and deal with the author’s sources of inspiration, intellectual influences, mentors, as well as social and political contexts from which a wellspring of ideals have sprung. This book is a feast what is worth sharing with policy makers, scholars, art practitioners, young and old scholars alike, who year for reminiscences about music, the arts, life and scholarship across a greater part of nine decades. This is simply a trove on arts and nationalism, worth reading and passing on.
— from the Foreword by Professor Kwesi Yankah, President, Central University
‘Highlife is the only music in this country that has stood and will continue to stand the test of time.’ – Victor Olaiya
As West Africa’s oldest form of popular music, highlife was the soundtrack of the independence era. Its influence still resonates today.
Highlife Giants is an intimate portrait of the pioneering artistes of West Africa’s music scene from the 1920s onwards. It contains interviews with stars such as E.T Mensah, Kofi Ghanaba, King Bruce, Bobby Benson, Victor Uwaifo, and Ignace De Souza revealing priceless behind-the-scenes moments such as Louis Armstrong giving Eddie Okonta a trumpet with a golden mouthpiece after seeing him perform. Highlife Giants charts the development of this rich and varied popular form which is hugely influential on contemporary West African music from Afrobeat to hiplife.
Blending European and African-American styles with traditional African patterns, highlife music contributed to the development of post-independence national identity in both Ghana and Nigeria. As such, highlife remains crucial in generating social commentary, protest and contributing to the formation of a pan-African musical identity.
For those who lived through the era, Highlife Giants will be a compendium that invokes treasured memories. For their children and grandchildren, this book will inspire an interest in the rich musical history of West Africa.
“African Pianism refers to a style of piano music which derives its characteristic idiom from the procedures of African percussion music as exemplified in bell patterns, drumming, xylophone and mbira music. It may use simple or extended rhythmic motifs or the lyricism of traditional songs and even those of African popular music as the basis of its rhythmic phrases. It is open ended as far as the use of tonal materials is concerned except that it may draw on the modal and cadential characteristics of traditional music.
“Its harmonic idiom may be tonal, atonal, consonant or dissonant in whole or in part, depending on the preferences of the composer, the mood or impressions he wishes to create or how he chooses to reinforce, heighten or soften the jaggedness of successive percussive attacks. In this respect the African composer does not have to tie himself down to any particular school of writing if his primary aim is to explore the potential of African rhythmic and tonal usages.”
Although I have felt the need for this kind of material even in the 1950s, most of the Twelve Pedagogical Pieces in this volume were written when the school of Performing Arts at the University of Ghana was established in the 1960s in order to give the African piano student being nurtured on simplified and original versions of Western piano repertoire something with African rhythmic and tonal flavour that may enrich his experience, shapes his orientation, sense of timing and coordination of rhythmic and tonal events.
As the titles of the pieces indicate, I have used a variety of traditional and popular sources as the basis of the compositions. Each source establishes a framework of rhythmic and tonal configuration from which a few idiomatic derivatives are made and used in the inner and outer structures of the piece in such a way as to create a perpetual feeling of propulsive motion. Each piece is sustained by a particular quality of motion created in this manner.
As in traditional African practice each piece can be repeated once or twice except where a definite closure is indicated by a retard. The pianist can also select a number of them and play them as a suite. A few of them such as the Volta Fantasy and Meditation can stand on their own as concert pieces and have been presented in that manner by both African and Western pianist. It is my hope, there- fore, that some of the pedagogical pieces will be of general interest. – J. H. Kwabena Nketia
Kwabena Nketia was a renowned scholar, linguist, composer, poet, researcher, teacher and musicologist in Ghana. His writings have become standard reference works on African musicology, and his work spanned many countries and interests. Nketia maintained a strong interest in Afro-American concerns, African musical traditions and Africans and blacks in the diaspora; and he worked tirelessly on establishing a theoretical framework of African music; consciousness of African identity in music; and to produce publications representing his own musical culture.
This biography concentrates on the educational and research aspects of Nketia’s work, assessing the importance of his contribution to African musicology, thought on music education, and practical application of ethnomusicology and composition in teaching method, and exercises in African rhythm.
The volume in hand deals with modes of inquiry and interpretation broadly organised into sections on theory, and historical and creative studies. The section on theoretical issues comprises papers on: the problem of meaning in African music; musicology and African music; the juncture of the social and the musical; integrating objectivity and experience in ethnomusicological studies; the aesthetic dimension in ethnomusicological studies; universal perspectives in ethnomusicology; and contextual strategies of inquiry and systematisation. The section on creative and historical topics covers the following: the history of music in African culture; history and the organization of music in West Africa; historical evidence in Ga religious music; processes of differentiation and interdependency in African music; African musical roots in the Americas; and developing contemporary idioms out of traditional music.