1. In a Sentimental Mood by John Coltrane
Perhaps it’s because I was raised by a music-loving mother, perhaps because I studied piano, cello, music theory – whatever the reason, my approach to prose is informed by my sense of sound. For me, notes tell stories; stories are melodies. No piece of music makes this point more clearly than Coltrane’s. Those first seven notes of ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ hit my ears like words, not notes. I shall never tell stories as well as Coltrane’s alto sax, but it’s my greatest joy to try.
2. Prelude in C Sharp Minor by Sergei Rachmaninov
The first three chords of Rachmaninov – especially as played by Sergei himself – seem to announce the death of a man, a minor key ‘Kweku is dead’. That the piece then gives way to such gentle sounds – full of longing, questioning, even vulnerability – thrills me to no end. This is how I try to write, what I like to hear, to read: heavy followed by featherweight, pathos by softness, by silence.
3. Fool for You by Cee-Lo Green, performed by Alice Smith
The first time I heard this track by Cee-Lo Green, I thought: ‘this is a perfect song.’ It literally made my shoulders move, my heart pound more quickly. Pure sexy. But then the unimaginable happened: I heard perfection perfected. Alice Smith’s cover is consummate: raw, gorgeous, rough, smooth. It reminds me that there’s nothing new under the sun, no new stories to tell – but always a way to use one’s own voice to create a singular shine.
4. Sing, Sing, Sing performed by BBC Big Band Orchestra
When I’m stuck, I put this song on blast and dance around my apartment. Sometimes I think I should have been born in the twenties, other times that I could still yet write a cabaret. The drums, the horns, that honey-thick sound: I just get happy. No matter how frustrated I am with my fiction, I never cease to delight in my fantasy cabaret.
5. Summertime performed by Kat Edmonson
If I had to pick a favorite song, it would be ‘Summertime’. I have an endless collection of covers, including the amazing ones by Janis Joplin and Yuya Uchida and the Flowers. But, for my money, Kat Edmonson takes the cake. Her cover of ‘Summertime’ on the album ‘Take to the Sky’ is so beautiful, you feel it as much as you hear it. That moody piano, those lazy chord progressions feel a bit like water; you feel it in your chest somehow. It makes you want to make art.
6. Utrus Horas by Orchestra Baobab
I played this song on repeat for weeks while writing Ghana Must Go. Alas, I can’t listen to music while writing – it feels a bit like trying to compose music with the radio on – but I’ll often play one song nonstop in the hours between bursts of inspiration. Orchestra Baobab’s 1982 ‘Pirates Choice’ is a flawless album, this first track ‘Utrus Horas’ the ultimate feel-good song.
For more about the author, including critical perspectives and in-depth biographies, visit the British Council’s web pages on Taiye Selasi.
Photograph © Nadav Kander