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.

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