Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Balance Pins

Paulin has returned from DRC. Thanks to everyone who made a donation. There's still time.

Here he is putting the front rail and balance rail pins in the keyboard. 

Monday, 16 December 2019

Goma Tragedy

News Photograph

We have some very sad news to report at Kigali Keys. 

Three weeks ago a plane went down in Goma, a city in the DRC just across the border from Gisenyi. The plane landed in a residential area. One of the houses it hit belonged to the brother of our chief piano carpenter, Paulin. His brother was at church at the time, but it killed his sister-in-law and their children.

Our thoughts are with him at this time and we are holding a collection for his family. If you would like to contribute, you can do so through our donation button, or contact us for mobile money details. Add Paulin to the PayPal note and we'll make sure he gets it. Our condolences to all those who died and their families.

Paulin, left.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Lirika Rebirth

Rodrigo Putting in Tuning Pins

A much awaited update.

Recognise this lovely instrument? 

It's our original Lirika. The 1968 Soviet piano we took apart to learn how pianos work. We're starting to put her back together. Painted black with a purple frame. Fresh tuning pins are being put in and then she'll come to mine for stringing. We'll be using the same red leather as our new build piano and even attaching some candle sconces. She's having quite a makeover. Even contemplating replacing the white key tops with mirror plastic, just for fun. But we'll see where we get to. If you missed it, the original Lirika bass strings were turned into a giant treble clef.



Saturday, 7 December 2019

African Mona Lisa

We've posted before about talented Rwandan artist Ishumwe Dady. We love this portrait he painted of musician Clement Iradukunda, prominently featuring piano keys. You can see more of Dady's work here.

African Mona Lisa

Saturday, 16 November 2019

From Russia With Love

A couple of months back, Marion's cousin Tamsin was travelling in Tajikistan with her partner, Guido. They went to Khorog museum and found this piano:

This fascinating Soviet-style old-school museum exhibits crampons and the first Russian piano to arrive in Badakhshan (10 Russian soldiers spent two months carrying it over the mountains from Osh in 1913) along with portraits of Stalin and the basket of a collective farm's star potato-picker. The dilapidated collection is in need of a good dust but that rather adds to the charm. - Lonely Planet

It's an J. Becker. We initially assumed it was named after John J. Becker, an American composer, but a piano forum suggests otherwise:
The Piano Atlas indicates that Jacob Becker went to St. Petersburg in 1841 (from Germany by other sources) where he began what became the high end piano maker for the Czars and their retinue. This Russian maker whose name as J. Becker was known on the fallboards appearing in the best homes of Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as in both conservatories where the formidable Russian school of pianism began and was fostered. Becker was apparently a pretty good piano maker until the Soviet era. Their output was always pretty small. - David Burton, Piano World

Unfortunately, this one now appears to be used to store cleaning equipment...

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Drop That Bass

Wanted to share an incredible piece of artwork we've just acquired. 

Back in 2017, when we first took the strings off the Lirika, it was quite an emotional moment. It had taken Marion years to find a piano, so to take it apart with no guarantee of ever being able to put it back together was a bit of a momentous occasion. She didn't just want to throw the strings away. Instead, she had the idea of turning them into a treble clef - a work of art to display at future events. Her friend Ivy put her in contact with a local artist called Rukundo Nyawe, who took up the challenge. 

Our friend Emmy came to deliver it last week, and it's truly impressive. 

Rukundo used every piece of string we'd saved: bass, steel, even the little pig tails we'd trimmed from the tuning pin ends. No waste. And it looks utterly amazing hanging on the wall. A really fitting tribute to a beautiful piano that gave us our start at building one. 


Sunday, 3 November 2019

Rust Damage

This is a pretty devastating post to have to make. The piano has been stored at the workshop for many months now and was protected by waterproof sheeting, however on inspection a couple of weeks back, it turns out that water has affected around seven choruses in the midsection and one bass string. 

We have enough string to restring the midsection and a replacement bass, but it's really undone a lot of hard work and will take time to fix. An issue we'd really hoped to avoid. 

We're now making plans to return the piano to Marion's house where it can be protected from further damp and have the repair work done.

In other sad news, Désiré's workshop was broken into last week. Thankfully the thief was caught by police and nothing from the piano project seems to have gone missing, but it's set back work a little.

The wet season is a particularly difficult time for piano building in Rwanda.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Rwandan Rhapsody

So, we've been on a three-month hiatus. 

Sorry about that.

A combination of many factors: Désiré becoming a dad again, having a lot of other projects he had to complete to bring in money, Marion's parents visiting for three weeks, and a bout of malaria. Things kind of ground to a halt.

We're gearing up again, though.

Starting out with a little post about a concert we helped with last month. British musician Ian Sheppard was visiting Rwanda and played two gigs at CasaKeza in Kacyiru.

Marion provided her Young Chang for the event, but it took a bit of getting over there.

We put the piano on the porch and opened it up, partly to let the sound out and partly because it looks extremely cool. You can still see the size tag on a newly-strung bass string.

Many people have never seen the working action inside a piano before and it drew a lot of excitement. Pianos here are really rare and, 'Ooh, there's a piano!' was a regular exclamation as people walked out to the garden. We left it unlocked most of the time so people could come and have a go. Quite a few musicians pass through CasaKeza as they regularly have live music, so there was a real eclectic mix. It was great to see, as most musicians only have access to electric keyboards and playing a full-on acoustic piano is a whole other experience.

One day, we'd love to build a public piano for the pedestrian area of Kigali town centre.

Anyway, Ian is extremely talented and great at getting the audience to join in. Here's his rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019


Oh, happiness. Two months and one week later, our pins arrive!

Front rail and balance pins. 

They're sitting in Dés's workshop ready to go into the keyboard. Then the keyboard will go into the piano, and the Lirika action will hopefully go on top of that - and we'll hear what our piano sounds like.

What a terrifying thought.

Had an interesting experience yesterday. Doing some final adjustments to the Kimball we've been working on. A couple of the keys were catching, likely due to exposure to damp in the past, and it was making them impossible to play. Had a good look at them, but it was quite hard to tell exactly where they were catching. For lack of chalk, Marion waxed the keys to protect them, then coated a thin layer of concealer across them. She popped them back int he piano and had another play. The concealer highlighted the areas that were rubbing and she got to work with the sandpaper.

When needs must.

It took a lot of sandpapering, and they're not a hundred per cent, but they're much better than they were and you can now play all the keys. We'll monitor the situation and maybe break open the power sander later down the line.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Springing into Action

Another disappointing day at the post office. Next week will be two months since we placed the order for rail pins from America. I think this is the major decider about whether we can manufacture pianos. Next to whether we can build one, it's a supply issue. The postal system is just unbelievably slow.  It's particularly frustrating as it's the last piece in the jigsaw before we find out whether the piano plays. 

In the mean time, we're continuing to work on the Hamilton for Bugasera Lodge. Marion replaced all 88 springs over the weekend. You can see the difference it makes in the video above. Meanwhile, Désiré had a go at making replacement hammer butt flanges for a couple that had broken. Going to try them out tonight. If we can't make them ourselves, we'll need to order the parts - and that would take a really long time.

Hoping to take the action back to Bugasera on Saturday, then wax all the rail pins and put in new felt for the back rail, which was looking really worn. With any luck, that should result in a playable piano.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Congratulations Désiré and Adelle

Huge congratulations to Désire and Adelle on the birth of their seventh child, son Glory. Wishing Adelle a speedy recovery.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Bugesera Bound

Marion took a little trip out to Bugesera yesterday, where we're helping to fix up a 1947-52 Hamilton. It's about half an hour by moto, down through the wetlands. 

We're going to do some more work on it, replacing all the springs, improvising some new key punchings and replacing a couple of action parts, but it's now had an overpull and it looks like we can get it back to full playability. 

New Spring Makes a Difference

Jocelyne put on a wonderful lunch again.


Always a pleasure to visit. 

We've been really quiet recently just because we're waiting on parts. We ordered some hammer shanks on 9th May, to repair a Kimball, and centre and rail pins for ourselves on 23rd May. They were dispatched the same day, but no sign of anything yet. Post can be excruciatingly slow at times, regularly taking anywhere from three weeks to three months for parts to arrive. Eventually we'd like to make all our own parts, but we need samples in order to do that - hence the order. 

Once the pins arrive, we should be able to finish the keyboard off and try testing the piano with the old Lirika action. That will be an exciting time.

We were hoping to have an international volunteer here to help us, but despite initial enthusiasm, that's fallen through. They found a piano expert, but he wasn't willing to come because he felt the project wasn't viable. That was a real kick to all the hard work everyone's put in so far. When we first started out, people were saying it would be impossible to make a string frame here - but we found Chillington, and we made one. So, we're forging on without a volunteer. As always, we're turning negativity into positivity and we're determined to finish the project, with something playable to show for it. 

Whilst we wait for the post to arrive, we're continuing to help out with fixing other people's pianos and trying to get more working instruments in Rwanda.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Serena Grand

Yesterday was a really interesting day. We got a call out from Anselm, the pianist at Serena Hotel. He was having trouble with A#2. After playing the note, the damper wasn't lowering properly and the note continued to sustain. 

This is only the fourth grand we've seen in Kigali. We tuned one for a private owner, the Belgian Embassy has one, and there's a baby one at Bamboo Chinese restaurant on the roof of T2000. There was also the matter of the one in Bukavu, but it wasn't anywhere near as glossy as this fabulous seventeen-year-old Yamaha. 


Generally, we haven't dealt with grands for the simple fact that they are so rare and we haven't had much opportunity. However, there is another reason we're hesitant. Grand pianos are very expensive instruments. Whereas you might be able to import a new upright for a couple of thousand dollars, something like a Yamaha grand can cost anywhere between £15-30,000. Currently being a hobby project and not a business, we don't have insurance for this. If we break anything, we need to fix it, and the cost, combined with very lengthy postal delays, makes working with grands a nerve-racking prospect.

However, Anselm had been in contact since November, asking us to check it out, because there really was no one else able to do so.

It was very clearly a damper issue. Instead of falling between two strings to silence them, it was twisting out of place and resting across the strings without enough pressure to silence them. Unfortunately, this meant removing the entire action from the piano to get to the damper at the back.

This is basically the entire process, thanks to our friend Steve Howard.

You can imagine, when this is your first time taking apart a Yamaha grand, it adds to the nerves to be doing it in front of a restaurant full of people. 

Still, things went well and the action slid out without any resistance. Thanks to the bar staff, we placed it safely on the carpet nearby, as it was too heavy for Marion to lift by herself.

It is rather strange to look at any piano without its keys, but it does allow for a fun photo looking out through the strings from the inside.

And it is like a mini-warehouse in there. There's space to lay out all your tools and rest your arms whilst you check to see what's going on.

Lights On

Lights Off

You can see the problem damper to the far right. The damper lever is slightly higher than the others because the damper hasn't dropped, it's resting above the string.

When you pushed the damper into place and played the note again, by pushing the damper lever up, the same thing happened and it refused to drop. By loosening the screw, you release the damper wire and can pull the whole thing up and out. We took that damper out, and the one next to it to compare. The troubled damper is the one on the right, but the wire is correctly positioned. It's at a funny angle because it's a corner damper that is shaped differently to fit snugly up against the string frame without catching. 

Having established the damper wire wasn't broken or bent, we popped it back in and tightened the damper wire screw securely. This immediately solved the problem. It appears the damper wire had simply come loose and that's why the damper was twisting out of position when the note was played.

Satisfied, we called on the assistance of the bar staff again, to help lift the action back into the piano, and set about replacing the cheek blocks and fall board.

Yamaha pianos are disgustingly well designed. Everything slots smoothly into place as though the piano is happy to help. The fall board even has a slow-lower mechanism, so it doesn't drop shut with a loud bang, but slowly drifts closed like a fire door. Very posh instrument. Mind you, it's a very posh hotel.

Anselm came to check it out once we'd finished, and was very pleased with the results. 

It was a great experience for us, though not one we're likely to repeat any time soon. This is a modern instrument, in good condition, and should hopefully have very few problems for a long time to come. Meanwhile, we'll get back to working with uprights and breathing easily.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

In Bed with Kigali Keys

We have a key bed, more or less.

This is the original:


As you can see, we're lacking rail pins, both balance and front. We were going to attempt this ourselves, and in the long-term hope to find a local solution, but in the interests of finishing the project sooner, we're ordering them from Howard in the US.


So, what does this mean for the project?

Well, once the pins arrive and we have them installed, we can mount the keys.  

That's when it should get exciting. Once the keys are mounted, providing everything's built to scale, we should be able to place the Lirika action inside our piano and, with any luck, it'll line up. This would let us test whether our own strings hold, tune the piano, and test our flip-flop hammers

That's when we're going to know whether this is a viable business or not. If we encounter serious problems at that stage, we might not be able to continue, as we couldn't afford to rebuild from scratch. But if only minor adjustments are required, we'll make those and move on to tackling the action. The action is extremely complicated, so it's only worth us attempting if we're likely to mass produce in the future. 

Exciting times.

If we can get the piano playing with the Lirika action, we could also display at this year's Made in Rwanda Expo.

We're currently funding this with our own time and money, so we're always extremely grateful for any contributions.