Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Lights, Camera, Action

Meet Gaston.

We've just spent the entire day racing around Kigali filming the team who are going to try to build the first Rwandan piano.

It's been a long road to get here. My friends who were going to help me make the fundraising video suddenly found themselves in the centre of a personal housing crisis, so didn't have any free time. I met a fantastic guy from South Africa who's a really accomplished film maker, but he was a bit out of my price range. Then Gaston was recommended to me as he'd done an Indiegogo film for someone else. I was really impressed by his work and he was within my budget, so we're making it happen.

We started out with a return performance by Paco, who is one of Rwanda's foremost pianists. I asked him to come along to show what a piano is capable of. Even a fifty-year-old upright. Lirika is a 1968 Russian instrument, and she will provide the template for our own model, effectively becoming the mother of all Rwandan pianos.

It was a blazing hot day, so we were all sweating by the end of the interview. I slathered on sun lotion and we hopped motos (public motorbikes - main form of transport in Kigali) over to Karabona's workshop.


Alex Karabona is a Rwandan metal worker with a small foundry. Essentially, everything rests on him, because if we can't forge a string frame, we can't build a piano. All pianos have a string frame, or harp frame, inside, and some hold up to twenty tons of string tension. If it bends even a fraction, everything is lost. The first thing we'll do if we raise the money is take Lirika apart and give the frame to Alex to see whether he can recreate it. He's feeling confident, and he smiles all the time, so I'm confident that he's confident.

From there, we continued on to Desiré's workshop on the other side of town. Desiré is the carpenter who is going to try to figure out the piano action. If we can build both string frames and actions in Rwanda, we might be able to produce an affordable instrument. For every part we need to import, the price goes north. But along with the string frame, the action is extremely complicated. We won't know for sure that we can do it until we take Lirika's action apart. 


We had a very funny conversation when I asked whether Desiré had any jacaranda wood we could show, because I was hoping we could make the piano from jacaranda. It's very strong and very light in colour, which would make for naturally white keys without having to resort to plastic coverings. 

Desiré looked at me and said he didn't know what jacaranda was, but suggested we use umusave.

I didn't know what umusave was, but it looked right.

I said I liked it.

Gaston smiled and explained 'umusave and jacaranda are the same thing.'

Always reassuring when two people speak different languages but still understand what the other is thinking.

 Umusave/Jacaranda (left), Pine (right)
Both Locally Sourced

Finally there was me. Mostly I'll be trying to stay out of everybody's way, but I hope to rock up at the end to string and tune the new piano. I hate being in front of the camera, so we did my interview last, racing against the setting sun so that I didn't have too much time to think about it. Hopefully it'll be okay. We've got a few last things to shoot in town tomorrow to provide some filler for the video - make it recognisably Kigali. Hoping to have the finished short ready to roll next week. Watch this space. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

All Systems Go

Had my first and last piano lesson on Sunday.

Almost wept to see Paco showing me how Lirika should be played. He's one of Rwanda's foremost pianists, but hadn't seen a fully opened piano before.

This is why we need pianos in Rwanda!

To hear her being played so well, and to know I tuned her and fixed those broken keys - it was quite an emotional moment.

But it's likely to be my last lesson as we've failed to find a broken piano in Kigali. 

My friend Desiré was over yesterday and we went through everything in detail. It seems it's going to be fairly straightforward apart from the piano action - the bit that makes the hammer hit the string and the damper lift. It's a complicated mechanism.

Like the string frame, we'd much rather tackle that challenge here than import. Some things, like strings and bridle straps, are going to need to come from outside, but as far as possible, we want this to be a Rwandan built piano. Firstly, to prove we can, and secondly, to keep the final instrument at an affordable cost. 

A friend told me One Love, a club in town, had a broken piano. I went to check it out. They have two pianos - unfortunately (for me) both are in perfect working order. So, I'm resigned to taking Lirika apart and - one day - putting her back together again.

I'm meeting later in the week with a couple of friends who specialise in promotional videos. I'm hoping they'll give me a hand getting a crowdfunding project off the ground. I think we're probably looking at around FRW 5,000,000 (£5,000) to build the prototype because we intend to make a few mistakes, and the time invested in working out the action will be longer the first time we do it. Once we know what we're doing, things should get easier. We also need the frame mould making. Once we have that, we should just be able to reuse it.

Something that has been a little surprising has been the level of negativity I've encountered from established piano makers and parts suppliers. I've contacted a few asking for advice. The worst response was from a British string manufacturer:

Sorry to dampen your enthusiasm but there are plenty of people like you who have the dream of building their own piano, but you are not likely to succeed.



I have to admit, that's one of the reasons I love living in Rwanda. Sure, we try things and they sometimes fail, but everyone is willing to get involved in new ideas - to explore the 'what if'. It's all about building something. 

Yes, on the one hand it's complicated, there's a lot going on inside a piano, but on the other hand it's quite simple - it's all just wood and metal.

 Now we need to get the cash together.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Mad Idea

A new month and a mad idea. It's time to come clean on the purpose of this blog.

What started out in December as a personal project - to tune and fix my piano - has blossomed into insanity. Encouraged by my progress, I visited a Korean church where the pianist had (and I have no idea how) managed to cut five of the strings. I was able to identify the new strings that they needed to order. 

Like me, the pastor had huge problems finding anyone to fix the piano, which is why I was there and not someone more experienced.

I've loved every minute working on Lirika, and I wondered whether I might be able to put myself out there as a piano tuner, but things have gone a step further. After all, a piano tuner isn't much good when nobody owns a piano.

Just after I bought Lirika, I hired a carpenter called Deseré to make some furniture for my house. When he saw the piano, his whole face lit up and we got to talking.

"Do you think you could make something like this?" I asked.

After a thorough inspection, he reckoned he could.

My mind started spinning. As far as I know, there's no one else in Africa making pianos. There was a guy in South Africa, but unfortunately he died.

Each year in Rwanda there's a huge Made in Rwanda expo, and the government is really invested in promoting homemade products. If we could get a prototype together for the next expo, it would be something truly special.

Our stumbling block was the string frame. Inside a piano is a really strong frame (also called a harp) which holds the string tension - about 20 tons. So it needs to be extremely strong. If we were to build a piano, we'd need someone who could cast iron or aluminium.

Enter Karabona - the guy who made my tuning hammer.

Rwanda is a landlocked country. Transporting goods into the country is expensive, and import duty is high, which would push the price of the final product beyond the possibility of most people. I'm not particularly interested in making a concert-grade work of excellence, I'd rather create an instrument that is functional, and which musicians and music schools might be able to purchase. 

Karabona has just left, and he thinks he can make the frame.

The huge issue here is that we need a template, and the only piano I have is mine.

Having spent so much time working on Lirika to get her up and running, I'm loath to take her apart again. On the other hand, if we do, she would become the mother of all pianos in Rwanda. I'd put her back together with news strings and pins.

Ideally, I wanted to find a broken piano which we could take apart. I have seen them before in Kigali. People sometimes use them as decoration. There was a stunning, Gothic-looking Emile Vits I saw once in a guy's house, only it was a couple of years ago and I can't remember whose house or where it was.

It was very broken, but that would have been perfect for taking apart and good practise for putting back together. The guy also had a spinet, which someone else has said they've seen, but it's a very different style of piano and slightly more complicated. The Lirika upright is really the best example of what we need to aim for.

I've spent the past few weeks e-mailing churches and estate agents to see if anyone has a lead on a broken piano, but nothing has surfaced. One person told me there's one in a club called One Love in town, but I'm having trouble contacting the owner. I'll go and take a look, but I'm about 90% resigned to taking Lirika apart.

I've just booked a piano lesson on Sunday, but it might be my first and last if we go ahead with this.

It's just too tempting not to try. I have already been warned by one piano manufacturer that building a piano requires highly specialised skills, and that we'd need to purchase most of the pieces from established manufacturers, but unfortunately we don't have that luxury. The strings, pins and possibly hammers may need to come from abroad, but for the most part we need to make do with what we have. That's part of the attraction - is it possible?

If Deseré and his team can handle the woodwork, and if Karabona can handle the frame, then I should be able to string, regulate and tune her.

So, this is our mad idea.

We're putting the budget together now, and budgeting for a few mistakes. It will be a massive learning process for all of us. And, yes, it may all end in failure, but we couldn't possibly do worse than anyone else because no one else is doing it.

Once we have the budget, we're hoping to put together a crowdfunding campaign to get things off the ground, in the hopes that if we are successful and can display a prototype later in the year, it might attract investment to develop the idea.