A dirge for Nketia

On March 13, the great Ghanaian ethnomusicologist Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia died at the age of 97. His hugely influential body of work contains books and papers on an area very important for many African cultures, located at the meeting point of music and language: drumming.

He worked extensively on drumming in several societies of Ghana and adjoining countries, first and foremost on drumming among the Akan. A fascinating area for everybody interested in language is his research on talking drums. They are proverbial for many African settings, but do you know how the drums actually speak?

Nketia distinguishes between different modes of drumming, depending on the intentions of the drummers to send short, conventionalised signals, imitate speech, or provide a rhythm for dancing. The first and third modes appear straightforward: dancers learn a code and tap it, and listeners can interpret it as a warning, call to a meeting, etc. Or they simply follow the beat in danced movements.

For the speech mode of drumming, the signal needs to be memorised by the drummers, translated into drum beats and pulses, and retranslated into speech by the listeners in order to be understood. Poems, oral history, proverbs could all be drummed, and understood by the audience based on rhythm and pitch of the drums. This art was already becoming rarer at the time when Nketia documented this skilful practice and is rapidly vanishing, since it requires years of instruction. Here is an extract from a text on oral history that could be drummed:

A text drummed in speech mode from Ashanti (Nketia 1963)

Because he was aware of the rapidly changing role and function of education in West African societies, Nketia wrote much on the importance of musical education to continue and modernise these traditions. A contribution that remains very topical, since formal education does still not give space to the learning of West African performing arts. Read more in his seminal work:

Nketia, Joseph Hanson Kwabena. 1963. Drumming in Akan societies of Ghana. Edinburgh: T. Nelson for the University of Ghana

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