Kofi Agawu


Kofi Agawu, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of Music, transfers to emeritus status to take up new responsibilities at the City University of New York. At Princeton, he advanced the study of music across genres, cultures, continents, and eras.

Kofi was born in Ghana and pursued his education in the UK, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Reading and a master’s degree in music from King’s College London before coming to the United States to study at Stanford University, where he earned his Ph.D. His research ranges across the disciplines of music scholarship to encompass music theory and analysis, music history, and ethnomusicology; indeed, he has expanded the boundaries of these disciplines by pioneering the field of musical semiotics, incorporating postcolonial theory into music analysis, and persistently questioning the relationship between history and theory. Likewise his subjects of inquiry include a broad swath of musics— from works by Mozart and Mahler to Schubert and Stravinsky, plus most notably the music of the Ewe people of Ghana. Yet as Kofi has argued, cogently and persuasively, these musics are not so very separate, as he examines European music of the 18th and 19th centuries and traditional African drumming with equal analytical rigor.

 Kofi’s first book, Playing With Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classical Music (Princeton, 1991), focuses on the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to identify the topics that pervade Classical music. In 2008, he published a sequel of sorts, Music as Discourse: Semiotic Adventures in Romantic Music (Oxford), extending his original insights while also building on the work of others inspired by his first book. The subtle whimsy in each title speaks to Kofi’s genuine good humor and sincere delight in the process of musical analysis.

In 1995, he produced the landmark study African Rhythm: A Northern Ewe Perspective (Cambridge), which knit together his formidable skills in musical analysis and deep cultural knowledge of the Ewe people in Ghana. He is a preeminent Africanist with longstanding ties to the University of Ghana, and his articles on various aspects of African music are required reading in seminars around the world. Kofi forcefully critiques scholarship on African music in Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, and Positions (Routledge, 2003), which delves into the aesthetics and ethics of ethnomusicology while insisting on the significance of postcolonial theory to musical analysis. “Few books in recent years have pursued a more ambitious agenda,” a colleague wrote of the book, which he deemed “the most powerful theoretical intervention in African musicology in a decade or more.”

Reaching out to a more general readership, Kofi authored The African Imagination in Music (Oxford, 2016) to explore the traditions, structures, and expressive dimensions of Black African music of the sub-Sahara. Even in acknowledging the breadth of such an undertaking, however, Kofi insists on the importance of the particular, offering a handful of close readings of musical examples. Above all, it seems, Kofi asks us all to listen— closely and attentively, free from the bias of our disciplinary identities. In 2010, surveying the state of scholarship, he noted that “the once antithetical disciplines of music theory and ethnomusicology are entering a new phase of cooperation. Put differently, music theorists are showing an increasing interest in non- Western (and non-canonical) music.” This rapprochement comes thanks above all to Kofi’s own work.

His interventions have been rewarded and his scholarship recognized by several prestigious prizes, including the Dent Medal from the Royal Musical Association (1992), Young Scholar Award from the Society for Music Theory (1994), Howard T. Behrman Award from Princeton University (2011), and the honorific of Extraordinary Professor from Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Kofi has also been sought   after as a college professor by universities around the world, and has taught at Haverford College, King’s College London, Cornell, Yale, and Harvard; held visiting positions at the University of Hong Kong, Indiana University, University of Toronto, the University of Pavia, Cremona, and Oxford University; and lectured at numerous universities and conferences around the world. In 2012–13, he was appointed George Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford, becoming only the second music scholar to have held that position since its endowment in 1930. He has served on the editorial boards of leading journals in musicology, music theory, African music and ethnomusicology, and on several fellowship panels.

At Princeton, his own career mirrors the plurality and multidimensionality that he so elegantly explores in African music. Kofi has served as director of graduate studies; mentored students in music history, music theory, and ethnomusicology; and attracted scores of undergraduates to his courses on African music. Dialogue in the department has been deepened thanks to his engagement and our discourse immeasurably enriched.

Annual Emeriti Booklet Excerpt: