The invitation from the ambassador of Colombia, Claudia Turbay Quintero to attend the classical concert to celebrate Prof J.H. Kwabena Nketia at the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast (Accra, 20th July, 2018) – was a most prized gift. The event was planned to coincide with Colombia’s 208th national day. That evening was a dream come true.
In my book, “Leadership: Reflections on some movers, shakers and thinkers”, I dedicated a chapter to the musical hero. Titled, “The genius of J.H. Kwabena Nketia: African art music as a contemporary genre” I lauded his music by praying in that chapter, “How I wish the late impresario Duke Ellington were here to score and perform Nketia suites for symphony and orchestra – at the Carnegie Hall (New York), and the National Theatre (Accra) – with Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeka, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald singing in Akan!” The wish was adorned with the riff – “What wonderful worlds that would be!” – from Louis Armstrong, the veritable trumpeter and singer.
The Nomad Voices
God moves in mysterious ways and tends to answer prayers in His own good time. Though the chapter in question came out in December 14, 2009, the request was granted serendipitously at Kempinski through the wonderful initiative of the ambassador of Colombia, a fervent advocate of the musical compositions of Prof Nketia. Dubbed “Nomad Voices – A promenade through sounds and music of three continents”, the concert highlighted the artistry of three prominent international musicians specifically invited for the occasion.
The piano accompaniment featured the veteran pianist Sergey Sychkov who, from the age of 10 years, offered public recitals, and in 1987 won the first place in a musical performance contest for young pianists from the Moscow area. He is the current pianist of the National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia.
The French/Colombian bass singer, Hyalmar Mitrotti, first appeared in TV commercials as a boy, and later studied Cinema and Theatre at the Universite de Montreal (Canada), and at the Sorbonne (France). An avid recitalist, he has performed in France, England, Uruguay, Algeria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Colombia, and so on. His deep voice has been used to promote commercials in Spanish, French, English, and Italian.
The third artiste, Monica Danilov, a mezzo-soprano singer, studied at the Manhattan School of Music and the Conservatory of Music of Brooklyn College (CUNY). She has worked with a good many conductors, and was a soloist at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and performed in Colombia and other South American theatres.
“Onipa Beyee Bi”
All three had now merged in Accra to pay homage to Prof Nketia. Perhaps the most exhilarating pieces – that held the Ghanaian audience spell bound – were the interpretations of Prof Nketia’s compositions, “Onipa Beyee Bi” and “Monkanfo no” by the duet of the mezzo-soprano and bassist vocalisations in Asante Twi.
Before those very last performances, a short biographical video of Prof Nketia from his youth through his discovery by Ghana’s former head of state, Dr K.A. Busia, were shown to much applause. He was then ushered by his daughter, Akosua, and grandson, M.anifest (a special musical artiste in his own right) into a seat facing the stage. It was an unforgettable sight watching the Prof humming along the international interpretations of his songs, and relishing every drop of it. At the end of it all, beside himself in euphoria, he hurled both hands in the air in a pure and complete ecstasy.
Music across three continents
The evening started off with opera of George Bizet’s Carmen: Habanera, Toreador and Si tu m’aimes. That led to the Cancion Latino Americana featuring compositions by Carlos Guastanino: Las puertas de la manana, and Cortadera, plumerito, and so on.
The “Golden Age” songs included La Vie en rose, My Way, My Fair Lady, Ol’ man river, West Side Story, I got rhythm, South Pacific, and Phantom of the Opera. The visiting musicians were accompanied in selected parts by “Ghanaian Seasonal House Singers” including Kennedy Dankwa, Joseph Quaynor, Angel Beugre, Mitchelle Ajeigbe, and others.
Prof Nketia’s legacy
In Plato’s “Republic”, the Greek philosopher, was quoted to have said: “Are you not aware that the soul of man is immortal and imperishable?” He added, “there is no difficulty in proving it.” While there will be great difficulty for mere mortals to prove facts about the soul, there will be no difficulty to know that legacy matters.
A life of substance matters. In preserving and sharing Ghana’s rich heritage, Prof Nketia – on a previous count – has over 200 publications and more than 80 compositions to his credit. His life’s work has taken him to musical and intellectual centres across the continents as the de facto ethnomusicologist ambassador of Ghana. He’s a national treasure to be conserved for posterity.
As I noted in the chapter about the legend, “The source materials for his artistry were in the wellsprings of the traditional songs the young Kwabena Nketia absorbed from his grandmother, Yaa Amankwaa, and her cousin, the “Adowa hemmaa” … The stimulus began in small, pure streams; but he expanded and spread them out like winged rivers cascading into wider channels; he made his new stuff fit the old pieces like puzzles. The secrets were in his improvisations and innovations; they both sported his considerable qualities, and hatched a brave new genre – the contemporary African art music.” [A bit lavish, perhaps, but hard to ignore]. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the legend we celebrate today. Amen!