The Archive “Speaks” for Itself – Speeches from Convocation Week 1965

One year has passed since the new audiovisual preservation and digitization lab was installed on August 2014 at the University of Ghana at Legon in joint efforts by the Institute of African Studies, the NYU MIAP Apex program and AudioVisual Preservation Solutions. In that time, the J.H. Kwabena Nketia Archives has busily become a model institution for audiovisual preservation efforts in Africa. Through the leadership of Judith Opoku Boateng, the cataloging efforts of George Gyesaw, and physical preservation and digitization work by Nat Kpogo, in just one year 245 at risk historic audio recordings are now accessible to researchers and musicians for the first time in decades. The contents of these recordings have already yielded advances in scholarship and musicianship at the University of Ghana and the amount of accessible materials continues to grow every day, despite the unique challenges faced by an institution working in West Africa. During my follow up visit this summer (to bring a new tape player for 3.75ips and 1.875ips tapes, provide additional training and perform quality control checks) I was ecstatic to find that the partnership I helped start over 7 years ago was finally yielding such tangible results.

One day, while I sat updating Workflow Documentation and contemplating how I could express the meaning of the efforts of the past year on our blog an incredible thing happened. Nat was digitizing asset AWG-W-52, a recording of a 1965 concert organized by the Music Department as part of the cultural activities of Convocation Week. The performance was proceeded by two incredible speeches by Prof. Nketia and the Minister of Arts and Culture J. Benibengor Blay. Their words, ringing out to us from 1963, perfectly embody the purpose and value of the work being done today at the archives and the international partnership that enabled its success. So on this, the one year anniversary of the installation of West Africa’s premier audio preservation and digitization laboratory at the JHK Nketia Archives of the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ghana at Legon, we take this opportunity to let archive, quite literally, speak for itself:


“We in the school of music and drama are deeply committed to African culture, and more especially to the performing arts of Africa. We believe that African traditional arts should be recorded, they should be preserved, they should be studied. But we believe also that they should not merely be studied, recorded, preserved, but practiced as living art. We believe also that the art must develop and that the study of African traditions should inspire creative experiments in the African idiom. We believe further that there is room for creating new cultural synthesis out of African traditions, new cultural synthesis out of both African traditions and new techniques and resources from other areas. A happy synthesis, however, can only emerge when the creative and sensitive artist is sufficiently and intelligently exposed to the traditions that he brings together in a new artistic synthesis. And, while emphasizing African traditions as a foundation on which we build, we don’t ignore other traditions which might help the student to enlarge his resources or acquire new techniques or broaden his outlook.”

-J. H. K. Nketia


“The will of the people however revived and the lamp of fate began to shine. The cultural reawakening began to assert itself. This reawakening was marked by the rise of a new spirit generated by our leader Asagefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah which revealed itself not only in a struggle for political emancipation but also for a more complete expression in the different fields of culture. The people quietly reorganizing themselves under the leader and calling forth from their ancient heritage new sources of strength were enabled to revitalize their spirit and finally to reassert their independence. The achievement of independence is most likely due to the cultural reawakening of the people of Ghana, marked with a conscious effort to maintain intact their cultural heritage. It is Ghana’s glory that there was sufficient faith and vision left even in this period of the greatest darkness to enable her to recover. The attention that has been given to our cultural heritage since independence stems from the fact that this heritage has been found to be of intrinsic value for national development.”

Blay_6FolkTales Blay_AfricanDrums

-J. Benibengor Blay

A complete audio recording of these speeches and the entire concert, featuring performances of compositions by J.H.K. Nketia, is available at the archive. Complete transcriptions of the speeches are also available.

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Seprewa Discoveries – Access In Action

The Seprewa, a stringed lute once traditionally used to sing praises in the court of the Asantehene, fell out of common use with the adoption of the guitar in Ghana in the 20th century. Osei Kwame Korankye, a Seprewa Instructor at the University of Ghana, learned to play from his grandfather in the late 1970s. He is one of the very few living masters of the instrument. Thanks to the digitization efforts at the J.H.K. Nketia Archives, Osei has access for the first time to audio recordings of Seprewa music from the 1960s. In the video below, Osei discusses the impact of listening to AWG-A-93 “Seprewa history and Atumpan” on his musical development. Just prior to the filming of this video, Osei told me that this was the first time since his grandfather passed away that he’s has a “new mentor” on the instrument.

A search in the Archives online catalog reveals twelve other audio tapes in the collection that include recordings of the Seprewa. These works are now accessible as academic resources at the University of Ghana to Osei, his students and scholars for the first time in decades. That’s truly what “Making African Academic Resources Accesible” (MAARA) is all about.

More information about the Seprewa and it’s relationship to Ghanaian Highlife music can be found here.

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Dancing to the Reality of MAARA – The success story

In the early 1950s, research fellows like J. H. Kwabena Nketia started capturing important ceremonies/events on sound and photographic media. This collection, according to an oral history by Nketia (2013), formed the basis of the establishment of the Institute of African Studies (IAS). As part of IAS developmental plan in 1974 the Media Centre was set up to compliment the already existing Sound and Photographic Archives to capture cultural events on sound, photographic and moving image media. This expanded the collection.

Far along in 2008, IAS inherited the audiovisual heritage collections from the renowned International Centre for African for Music and Dance (ICAMD). The ICAMD audiovisual archive was founded in 1992 by Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia. The aim was to serve the needs of scholars, researchers, and artists by collecting and producing audiovisual documentation on Ghana’s unique dance and music traditions as well as other attractive cultures around the world. The audiovisual carriers containing this rich collection spanned from quarter inch open reels, digital audio cassettes, micro cassettes, U-matics, Beta tapes, VHS, S-VHS, 78 rpm shellacs, LPs, Video8, Hi-8, audio cassettes, Mini-DVs, CDs, to DVDs. In terms of notable content, story-telling, songs, dances, and other oral and performance traditions formed part of the heritage materials that had been documented.

The greater part of the collections were essentially locked away on obsolete media formats, affected by mold and the inherent vice of sticky shed syndrome, whereby the tape becomes gummy and sheds the magnetic particles – the very particles that hold the content. The condition of the tapes is very common for archives in tropical areas and presents very real obstacles for preservation.

As the Archivist appointed to manage this important collection with such rich history and research value, but with inadequate staff, my task was a tough one. The archive had limited intellectual control over the contents of its collections and most importantly there was lack of awareness about the collection by potential users.  (more…)

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Professor Nketia: “The memories I lived are in these boxes”


On Wednesday July 30 we were honored to have a visit from Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia, ethnomusicologist.  He was so amazed at the level to which the archive has reached and what is now happening to the materials he collected in the 1950s. The first materials to be digitized are from the AWG (Africa-West Africa-Ghana) series that were collected by him. 

Professor Nketia talked about his first interviews with indigenous performers, 62 years ago. He made a remark about the fact that he is 93 years old and even when he dies he has something to take with him – knowing that his materials will be put to use.

He said “Now it will be used how it was intended to be used. Not just hidden away in boxes.”


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