J.H. Kwabena Nketia helped pioneer the scholarly frontier of ethnomusicology the study of music, usually non-Western, in its social context.
Dating back only about 50 years, ethnomusicology now thrives on many campuses across the United States. Thanks to Nketia, two courses using the field's techniques are being taught this semester at Kansas University.
"I remember in the '50s and early '60s on my visits to institutions (in the United States) the faculty would apologize for not having ethnomusicology, because attitudes or bigotry would not allow it at the time,'' said Nketia, the Langston Hughes professor of African and African-American studies for the spring semester.
"There were also not that many ethnomusicologists to go around. Now we have institutions turning out competent ethnomusicologists. Even Harvard is seeking an ethnomusicologist now.''
ORIGINALLY FROM Ghana, Nketia teaches two courses in African music: structures in African music, and music in African cultures. The latter course is mainly for beginning students, and the former is for more advanced music students. He currently holds the Andrew Mellon professorship of music at the University of Pittsburgh.
Born in 1921, Nketia grew up in the Ashanti region of Ghana, which then was a colony of Great Britain. Although his parents had no formal education, his mother sent him to school in a nearby town, and he eventually went on to Teacher Training College in Ghana and the University of London. He also studied at the Juilliard School and Northwestern and Columbia universities in the United States.
His interest in composing led him to begin examining the folk music of his native land.
"I STARTED from composition,'' Nketia said in a Wednesday interview. "I wanted to compose music in the idiom of my society. I had to collect material as a model, so I studied the music of my own people. I collected music in the early '40s, and I didn't know at the time that ethnomusicology existed.''
He taught in Ghana from 1942 until 1980, during which time he worked as the director of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. He also established programs that drew American students to study African drumming and music in Ghana.
Since 1980, he taught at a variety of universities, including the University of California-Los Angeles and Harvard. His books include "Funeral Dirges of the Akan People,'' "Folksongs of Ghana'' and "The Music of Africa.''
AFRICAN MUSIC has become a popular subject on American campuses because of its strong links with U.S. music forms such as jazz and pop, he said. Those links first brought him to study and teach in the United States.
"I suppose they (students) are interested because of the environment of pop music, especially in jazz and African-American music,'' he said. "We look at that music as part of a wider African idiom of music.''
In recent years, mass-culture links between musicians in Africa, the United States and the Caribbean have produced hybrids that achieved popularity all over the world. Paul Simon's work with South African musicians is one example.
"Paul Simon really showed how two kinds of musical culture can be linked,'' he said.
DESPITE THESE links, the folk music of West Africa continues. The rhythms and songs remain interwoven in the social and spiritual fabric of the people.
"Traditional forms continue because the practitioners do not belong to contemporary society,'' he said. "In Africa people tend to keep the contemporary side and the traditional side separate. Music from Western culture hasn't entered traditional ceremonies, except for some funerals and other happenings.''
The practice of ethnomusicology can extend to more familiar musical traditions as well. As a project, Nketia conducted a survey in which he clipped newspaper notices and articles on all varieties of musical performance in Pittsburgh from the symphony hall to community centers and fire houses to get a grip on what role music plays in that society. Even the extensively studied Western tradition of classical music has its folk aspects.
"THERE'S STILL a lot that's unwritten,'' he said. "When students go on to study the violin, they don't just learn from a book. There's a lot of oral tradition that goes on even in Western music.''
One of the big drawbacks to the field of ethnomusicology lies in examining and recording forms of music, he said. Advances in computer sound analysis have helped considerably, but so far no definitive way exists to translate the sound patterns of one culture to that of another.
"Notation has always been a problem and it continues to be so,'' he said. "Western notation, though convenient, cannot fully cope with other cultures, but we continue to use it with a lot of explanations and apologies.''
As links between societies and cultures grow with advanced technology, people's understanding of what music is may change. The discipline of ethnomusicology will become increasingly important, he said.
"As our cultures become more interwoven, we will need to be able to understand these other forms of music,'' he said.
Nketia will lecture on "African Roots Explore New Worlds: Pre-Columbus to the Space Age'' at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Big Eight Room in the Kansas Union. The lecture opens Black History Month.