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Meri Nana-Ama Danquah: The Music of Words

When I was seven years old, I went with my parents to visit a friend of theirs. While they sat around and talked, I made peace with my boredom at the man’s piano, striking random notes and creating little tunes to amuse myself. “Listen! She has a natural ear for music,” the friend insisted. Since this man was a well-respected pianist and had been a vocal coach to many young wanna-bes who actually ended up being, everyone believed him. Encouraged by his praise, I continued my impromptu concert until it was time for us to leave. The following afternoon when I arrived home from school, there was a baby grand in our tiny living room. The piano, along with a couple dozen lessons, was a gift from the friend whose hope, I suppose, was to nurture the talent he believed he had witnessed the evening before.

I was an interested and capable student, but I was also a lazy one. I hated practicing. It was too tedious, too painfully slow. I wanted to just take a sheet of music, run through it once, and then be able to play it perfectly. I wanted to be an instant artist. And my inability to immediately master the keys frustrated me. So much so that I eventually gave it up and put the whole idea of being a pianist behind me. A voracious reader, I spent the rest of my youth sitting under the sun on some patch of grass or curled up in the corner of some couch with a book in my hand. In time, that love of literature led me to writing, a hobby that would later become my chosen career.

Looking back, it seems strange that I did not recognize the similarities right away: those long, intense hours at the keyboard going over one small section again and again and again, my hands in position, the fingers moving rapidly, rhythmically. It was almost instinctive, the way I wrote my poems, my stories; it was almost as if I could hear my teacher’s voice behind me offering direction, commanding the flow of emotion. “Pianissimo,” she would whisper, as I was scripting a tender moment between lovers. “Ah, yes, yes. Slow down. Deep breath. Don’t think. Let yourself feel.”

When my memoir, “Willow Weep for Me”, was published, I was lauded by many reviewers for my skill in structure. “Where did you learn how to do that so well?” I was asked in interviews. “I don’t know,” was the reply I often gave. But, of course, I knew. I knew that it was through my relationship with music. What I bring to my work in literature is the same love, the same longing, and the same discipline that I thought I had failed to acquire.  I write in movements, not paragraphs or pages or stanzas. When I sit at my computer, my instrument, words are no longer constructed with letters and syllables; they are whole and half notes, drawn carefully across the spaces and the lines of my treble and bass and alto clefs. And inside of me, guiding my hand, is that seven-year-old composer who seeks not to imitate or emulate, but to create her own sound, her own style, one that somebody will hear and feel compelled to say, “Listen! She has a natural ear…” Listen. Listen. Listen, indeed. To the ode, to the aria, to the adagio. Listen to the music of these words.

Washington, D.C.
November 20, 2002

© 2003 Leconte


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