Monday, 16 April 2018

Grand Adventure

Can you spot the piano?

Marion was on holiday in Bukavu, DRC, last February when she looked over the balcony of the hotel and her eyes lit up. There was a baby grand sitting on a porch.

Turned out, one of her friends knew the person living there and put them in contact. She took the bus down to Cyangugu on Friday, a seven-hour trip which winds through Nyungwe Forest (incidentally, one of the contested furthest sources of the Nile). It was a wet and foggy day as the rainy season has been very heavy this year, leading to flooding and occasional landslides.

Nyabugogo Bus Park

Fog and Rain Through Nyungwe Forest

Remnants of a Landslide

Rice Paddy

Emerging from Nyungwe, the south is swathed in tea fields, and from the hotel there was a lovely view across Lake Kivu to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

View from Hotel

View from Bar in Town

Rwandan foreign residents can cross the border on a piece of paper called a CEPGL, so the next day she took a moto to the crossing and walked across the bridge between the two countries. The route crosses the river Rusizi, which flows from Kivu (one of the world's three exploding lakes) to Lake Tanganyika.

Things are a little different in Congo. The motos (public motorbikes) don't have passenger helmets, and the roads have huge potholes, which makes for a fun, if slightly hair-raising, journey along muddy streets. She made it to the house in one piece, and was welcomed in to look at the piano. 


It's an August Förster from Czechoslovakia (which became the Czech Republic in 1993). From the serial number, it was likely made around 1945, so around 73 years old. The company are still in business today, though based in Germany.

The story seems to be that the lady's grandfather was given the piano by a Belgian man he worked for in Goma, before the man repatriated. Her grandfather was a musician in his spare time and it's been in the family ever since. We've also been in contact with someone who thinks he remembers this piano, though we're still not one hundred per cent sure it's the same one.

It is always extremely interesting to learn about the history of any instrument. They find their way here to Central East Africa from all over the world: China, Japan, Korea, France, the Netherlands, the USA and Canada, but it's rare that anyone can tell you exactly how they got here or who once played them.

Sadly, this piano was in extremely bad condition. The tuning pins were severely rusted, the strings themselves were gone. Many of the keys, and the entire action, need replacing. It's a serious salvage operation.


It was clear it would cost several thousand dollars to refurbish, taking import costs into consideration. You'd have trouble giving it away in many places, but in this region we're unlikely ever to see another one. The value for use lies in the frame. As with the Lirika, if we have a frame, we could technically manufacture baby grands in the future. After making a pattern of the frame, we'd try to refurbish it as a rental instrument, as there's no one renting out a grand in Kigali, and plenty of musicians who could use one. We've been approached in the past to ask whether we can provide instruments for concerts, but we can't. We've only seen one other grand so far, and it's an extremely expensive Yamaha. The risk of damaging it if moved is far too high. If this one got a few knocks and scrapes, at least it would be ours and we could repair it. 

With all of this in mind, we made an offer of $500, but they felt this was too little. We're not prepared to go higher because of the huge cost of restoration, and we'd also need to get it across the border and up to Kigali, which is no small fete. 

Still, it was really interesting to see it, and to consider its history. Unfortunately, if it continues to rust and is left on the porch, it is unlikely to play again. It's heartbreaking to see pianos like this one, and the Sébastien Érard and Emile Vits, just rotting away when instruments are in such short supply. They really are incredibly beautiful, and a piano should do what it was built to do - make music. But it's important that we focus on our own project at the moment and try to get more pianos into circulation.

The trip back was very beautiful. Rwanda is an extremely green country, with breathtaking views of the lake and the mountains.


Saturday, 7 April 2018


Today, we remember the victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Their memory lingers like the last note before silence. 

It has been 24 years since the atrocity occurred. You can find out more on Twitter through #Kwibuka24, and there is a list of suggested reading here.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Mammoth Catch-up

Lirika's Action

We've been a bit quiet of late, but not inactive. We were called to help fix a 1953 Yamaha upright the other week. Imported from Nagasaki years ago. It was last tuned in 2011, but has held its tuning well. The main problem was a loose flange pin, which meant that one key didn't play, its hammer striking the side of the frame instead of the strings. We popped the pin back in and tightened it up, but ideally it needs a larger pin to replace it, otherwise it's likely to come loose again. There were also a few hammers that weren't falling back fully. Our friend Howard at Howard Piano Industries suggested it might be the opposite problem - the flange is too tight. Everything else looks in good form, so we'll try easing them and see what happens.

Then it was on to tune one of our regulars, the Korean church in Kinyinya. They have a Young Chang. Marion has replaced several of the base strings in the past, but broke a treble string last time she was tuning. Now we've got a plentiful supply of wire, she went to replace it... and broke five more!

This has never happened with any other piano. On close inspection, there was a small amount of rusting, but not enough to cause this level of snappage. One of their pianists kept breaking bass strings, which have no signs of wear, so the conclusion is - weak strings? Marion took a guess at the replacement size for the treble as she didn't have a micrometre, but the wire kept breaking, so she changed up a size and it held. A tough way to learnt, though. The tuning would only have taken a couple of hours, but ended up being double that. Still, it was good practise for when we come to string our own piano - all 220 tuning pins.


Yesterday we took the original Lirika action over to Chillington, the place that makes our string frames. Starting to suspect we might need some help with this. Désiré can only devote one day a week to the project and the action requires a large number of small wooden pieces. Things like springs and bridle straps are easily bought online, but the rest - including the metal frame - we need to make here. They've suggested a couple of places with CC cutters, which should be able to cut pieces to size with extreme accuracy multiple times.

Then we dropped back via the Korean church to examine the pins on the bridge, which Dés is working on at the moment. The spacing between pins is very important, and they have to be extremely strong to hold the pressure of the strings as they tighten.

We're very grateful to Father Hong for his patience in allowing us to take his piano apart and poke around. It's useful having such a similar piano nearby so that we can check our progress now that Lirika is in pieces. Like Lirika, their bass ends on D3#, and the frame is fairly similar, which makes it a good reference point.

Finally, we headed over to Gakinjiro, which is an area of Kigali with a sprawling wood and metal market. We went to look for frame bolts, which are big, thick screws that hold the string frame in place. This is an original. We couldn't find anything exactly the same, but we found something similar, so we're going to give that a go.

We also passed by The Woodworker's Friend, which is a shop selling carpentry equipment. Désiré needs a precision cutter for the keys as the jigsaw we have isn't nimble enough to do a quality job. We also need a sander. Unfortunately, the shop was close, but we're hoping to price everything up soon. We're also extremely grateful to Jim Kelly at  Fur Elise Piano Service in South Carolina. He's been incredibly generous with his time and knowledge, providing information on lots of technical issues and resources.

Gakinjiro (not our flash car, unfortunately).

So, it's taking a bit longer than planned, but the frame is getting secured soon, and the tuning pins are going in, ready for stringing.

We're calling in on Alex to make a couple more bits to fit the pins exactly. The pins will go in using a drill and standard hammer, but Dés and his team need tuning hammers to wind them back out again. We have two sizes of tuning pins: one is the same size as the original Lirika, for the new piano, and the second is a fraction larger, to put Lirika back together again. By having the bits made to measure, it helps prevent the tuning hammer from shaving the tuning pins, keeping them nice and square. Here's one he made for Marion.

We might not be able to do this next week as memorial week begins tomorrow for the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. April is traditionally a quiet time in Rwanda, when people remember those they lost.