I imagined John Blanke as the firstborn son of Nana Damoah, born at sunrise on a beautiful Saturday in June. Being born on that day, he was given the name Kwame, the Akan tradition for boys born on Saturdays.
Living in the Kingdom of Dagomba, Kwame looked up to his father, a rich merchant and a well-travelled man fluent in multiple African and European languages. Each time before Nana left for Europe, Kwame begged his father to allow him to come along, for he missed his father dearly during the months that he was gone. And when Nana returned, Kwame would sit with him and listen closely as he shared the wonderful stories of his adventures abroad.
One day, Nana returned with a present for Kwame: a trumpet wrapped in a soft red cloth. The minute he laid eyes on the trumpet, Kwame was determined to practice and practice and practice until he mastered the instrument. He was going to make his father proud. So he took his new trumpet to his music teacher and said, “I need to learn. Will you help me?”
And his music teacher did. By the time he turned nineteen, Kwame knew his way around that trumpet better than he knew his own bedroom at home. He played for his father one night, and when he blew his last note, his father jumped to his feet and embraced him.
“You’re ready, my son,” said Nana.
Kwame looked into his father’s face—looked at the pride in his father’s face—and smiled widely. “I can come with you to Europe?” he asked, barely containing his excitement.
“Yes,” his father said. “We leave for England in two days.”
It took them a full year to get to England. They started in the Gulf of Guinea, moving on to Morocco, Spain, Portugal, France, and at last Felixstowe, England. Each place brought new experiences for Kwame, and he loved every minute of it. He loved that he was finally travelling the world with his father, a dream he’d been chasing for as long as he could remember.
Nana had friends in England, so Kwame and his father stayed with them in a lovely small town called Welling in the county of Kent. Nana’s friends, John and Pat, were also merchants. When he learned that fact, Kwame could not stop asking them questions about their travels. He developed a particularly strong friendship with John, who liked telling stories just as much as Kwame liked hearing them. But John had trouble pronouncing Kwame’s name, stumbling over it in a terribly comical way each time. To make it easier for him and honour his friendship with him, Kwame decided that he would go by the name “John”. He only used that name in England, however, because he did not want to forget his true identity.
Unsurprisingly, Kwame had brought his trusty trumpet along to England, and would play for his father and their hosts nearly every evening after dinner. John and Pat were spellbound by the seventh note, and never failed to tell anyone who wished to hear that they knew the most talented teen from West Africa. Their consistent praise drew people from far and wide to hear Kwame play.
One morning, John let out an unseemly shriek, staring down at a folded sheet of parchment. Kwame, Nana, and Pat rushed over, wondering what the fuss was about. They looked down, and froze. The letter bore the royal seal of King Henry VII. Opening the letter with shaky hands, John read its contents aloud. King Henry was in need of a new trumpeter, and had heard of Kwame’s talent. Kwame was to be the King’s guest in two weeks’ time.
The two weeks seemed to crawl by, and Kwame spent nearly every minute of it worrying about his upcoming meeting with the King. What if the King hated his playing? What if the King could not see past his appearance? And what if the King did like his playing? What happened then?
As he took his first steps into the King’s entertainment parlour, Kwame feared he would be sick. He was so nervous. But when he lifted his trumpet and began to play, the King, the Queen, and the royal courtiers disappeared. The only people that remained in the room were his father and John.
Almost as soon as it started, it was over. The last note hung in the air between Kwame and the King, still ringing faintly. Kwame lowered his trumpet and bowed. Thunderous applause—led by the King—jerked Kwame out of his formal bow in surprise. The King, the Queen, and the royal courtiers were clapping madly, nodding approvingly.
“Well done, young John,” said the King once the applause faded away. “Well done.”
And so began the life of John Blanke, trumpeter to King Henry VII and later King Henry VIII.
Story Edited by Ella Wu