Sunday, 1 November 2020

The Story of a Love Affair

Sorry! It has been a really long time since we made an update. 

We are still working on the action alignment issue, but Dés had a bereavement recently and had to return to Congo to be with family. He has now returned and we continue to work on it.

In the meantime, we had a slight surprise.

Back before we really started any of this, Marion mentioned a broken Emile Vits she once saw in someone's basement. The story behind that was that Marion used to live in a house that she had to leave rather suddenly. She had become good friends with her landlord, whose family turned against him when they found out he was gay. As a result, Marion refused to pay rent to that family and her landlord helped her find somewhere else to live. In the process of house hunting, he took her to a very large house in the suburbs, where she saw two pianos. One was a Belgian Emile Vits and the other was a US Baldwin Spinet. 



She didn't end up living there, but she did fall instantly in love with the Emile Vits. She offered to buy it, but the owner said it belonged to his family and wouldn't entertain the idea.

The friendship with her former landlord drifted over time, and she never could remember where the house was, though she never forgot the piano. Part of the reason for starting Kigali Keys was the vain hope that someday, the owner might get in contact again. 

And... that's exactly what happened.

Five years later, she received a call from a man who wanted to know if we could salvage his piano. Marion went to meet him and he drove her to his house. As they pulled up in front of it, Marion had to pick her jaw off the floor - it was the house. 

The owner looked on astonished, as she pulled her phone from her bag and showed him a picture of the inside of his own piano. They had never met before, because the person she met last time did not own the house. The true owner works overseas a lot and had sublet it at that time. He is back at the moment because of COVID, and he no longer rents out rooms in the house.

However, the two pianos are still exactly where they once were. Although the owner, Adrien, asked Kigali Keys to fix the spinet, he very patiently waited whilst Marion ran down into the basement to hug the Emile Vits. 

Unfortunately, it's in a bit of a state. Over the past five years, a family of mice moved in and built a small city inside it. 



But, as you can see, it's a birdcage piano with a vertical frame and ivory keys. Given the address on the fall board, we reckon it's about 130 years old. Very few of the keys still play, but those that do hint at a very nice sound.


Marion always dreamed of finding this piano again, but restoring it would take a lot of work. It needs new pins, strings and hammers. However, the sound board and cage wiring look to be okay. 

Both pianos have a haunting story. Adrian was here in 1994, living near the Belgian Embassy. In the aftermath of the genocide, he was walking down the road and saw these two instruments sitting on the sidewalk. 

The soldiers agreed to sell them to him. He was training as a priest at the time and had learned a little piano in church. However, they were in a bad state, and have deteriorated further over time. It's lucky that he saved them, as they probably wouldn't exist today if he hadn't. We have contacted the Belgian Embassy, as Emile Vits is a Belgian make, but so far there are no leads as to who it belonged to before the genocide. 

At Kigali Keys, our mission is to get pianos playing again. There are several broken and unloved pianos in Kigali that simply act as decoration. It's incredible to hear one play again, or just to tune one up after years of silence. We're considering whether to adopt the Emile Vits as a salvage project as it depends on income, but it's likely to start featuring more on this blog in the near future.

Meanwhile, we put in the time with the spinet and everything worked out really well. Due to the design, it's a very difficult instrument to work on. You can't just pop the action in and out to test it like you would on a normal upright, but we were all rather amazed by the end result - it sounds brilliant. 


Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Happy Birthday Patricia

Happy Birthday to our supporter Patricia Lynn Rawn. 

May your year be filled with music.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020


Hi everyone.

So, the action is in the new piano - sort of.

We're really struggling to align it with the strings, especially at the very top treble. 

A lot of the centre pins are screaming their dissent after the treatment they've had over the past couple of years, and who can blame them. The problem is, we don't have any more at the moment.

For the time being though, it's about working out why the action isn't aligning properly and trying to fix that. Désiré and Paulin have been jiggling it about for a couple of weeks with no success. 

The bass plays more or less okay, but the top treble is a mess.

Until we can solve this issue, we can't tune her up and she won't play.

But, leave it with us. We're not fast, but we're persistent. We'll get there eventually.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Back in Action

Aaaaand... we're back.

The Covid-19 lockdown meant we've all been at home for about three months. Despite rising detection figures, lockdown restrictions are easing and Désire's workshop is back in business.

Above, you can see Paulin working to align our keyboard with the Lirika action. Once this is done, we'll hoist it into the new piano to try and align the hammers with the strings, then it's over to Marion for tuning. 

So, it shouldn't be too much longer until we can hear whether or not the piano plays. 

It's terrifying, but also really exciting. After such a long journey, we're all eager to know if it works.

More news as it happens.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Helping Genocide Survivors During Lockdown

We're making a little post on behalf of AVEGA-Agahozo, an organisation representing genocide widows in Rwanda. One of our project members works there and wanted to share this message:

Hello friends. Times are particularly difficult at the moment as we enter the memorial period for the 26th anniversary of the genocide. Due to COVID-19, memorial sites have been closed and communal events are on hold. This also means that our group counselling support sessions are unable to meet. AVEGA has many vulnerable members and we are trying to assist them in two key ways:

1) Delivering food and basic supplies to those who are particularly vulnerable, which include elderly and disabled widows with no surviving family and those who already have compromised immunity, such as those living with HIV/AIDS. It's particularly important that these groups do not leave their homes and risk infection.

2) Providing airtime packages to community counsellors in each district of the country so that they can regularly call up counselling clients to make sure they're okay during this time. We're also hoping to expand our national helpline, but it's important that those in counselling for trauma and depression are not alone at this time of year.

I know that there have already been a lot of appeals for help around the world, so I'm not going to push it. Everyone in the AVEGA office has already given what they can. If you would like to make a donation you can do so directly to our MTN mobile money (momo) account: Agahozo Avega 0788 520 122. You can also donate to that number using PayPal or a credit card through HeptaPay or WorldRemit or you can donate to Survivors Fund (SURF) in the UK who will pass on the funds.

All money will go either to airtime for counsellors or to food packages for vulnerable survivors.

Murakoze cyane/Thank you very much.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Kwibuka 26

Today marks the 26th anniversary since the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

The photograph above is taken from this article commemorating musicians who were killed

You can find out more about how COVID-19 is affecting memorial week in the Survivors Fund newsletter, here.

Saturday, 4 April 2020


Well hello.

A little update on lockdown in Kigali.

We're at the end of week two of lockdown and it's been extended until 19th April, though whether it's lifted all depends on how many cases there are. The number has been rising extremely slowly over the past couple of weeks. We're now at 89. The airport is closed and most of the foreigners who wanted to leave have left.

Marion and Dés are sitting it out with their cats and family, respectively. The government has been really quick to respond. Rwanda has been on high alert for Ebola for the past few years. Although there's never been a case here, the isolation wards and sanitation supplies were already in place. Food is being distributed to those most affected and communities are organising emergency supply boxes. So, things remain optimistic. 

Marion has been in quarantine with the action from Bugesera Lodge, so tinkering with that. Dés helped to replace a hammer butt and it's almost ready to reinstall, we just can't get it there, which is a shame as lockdown is the perfect time to learn to play.


Above is the Bugesera action on the left and our Lirika action lying down - see the blue flip-flop hammers? Desperate to give that a try. Our volunteer, Charlie, got it 90% of the way there and Paulin has put on the last few hammers.

This allows us to sit it on top of the new keyboard so that we can eventually test the new piano. The keyboard needs a few things doing, still. The key punchings need to go in and the capstans. Everything's a little thrown together at the moment, but you get the theory.

Old action on a new keyboard.

At the moment, we're not sure when we'll be able to start work again. We're hoping all of our followers are safe and well, and not talking to the furniture yet. We'll update as soon as we can.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Moving On Up

Well, Covid-19 has arrived in Rwanda. We've had nineteen cases so far. The airport is closed for 30 days and we're all on lockdown in our homes for two weeks as of Saturday.

A lot of expats, including Marion (who is British) and Dés (who is Congolese), have chosen to remain in Rwanda whilst we wait to see what happens to the world. The government has so far been very swift to act and implemented many helpful measures to prevent the virus spreading and the general mood is one of confidence and cooperation. 

Offered the choice of remaining or getting evacuated to Italy, our friend Giulia decided to remain here with her family - and a piano. Because, what else are you going to do whilst stuck at home for a few weeks? Perfect time to polish those keys.

We found this cute Young Chang being sold by a couple who were leaving. It's a difficult model to date, but we reckon possibly 70s. Dés helped her to move it a couple of days before the lockdown was announced, so it was lucky timing.

Heart in mouth as our piano moving team set to work.


One of the keys needed a little adjustment. A couple of bridle straps need replacing and the whole thing needs tuning, but that will have to wait until we're free to move about again. We're looking forward to seeing this piano again in the future.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Close to Testing

Exciting times here at Kigali Keys. 

Above are a couple of actions. The one behind belongs to Jocelyn's piano from Bugesera. This piano had a lot of problems when we first met it. There was some restringing to do, all the springs needed replacing and several of the bridle straps had been chewed off by mice. But we got through a lot of movies and nice meals in the process. The last part of the puzzle is replacing a hammer with a dodgy centre pin. It wobbles so much it doesn't strike the string full on. We tried re-felting it, but that didn't work, so we had to send to America for parts and those took months to arrive. Finally got them. Will also replace two hammer shanks. Seems someone else did a bit of repair on it some years back and, for want of a new shank, they simply shortened the old ones and reattached the hammer. You can see it best in this picture with the hammer nearest to you.

Once that's fixed, we'll be taking the action back to Bugesere Lodge, giving the piano a full tune, and hopefully celebrating its full restoration. It's been an absolute pleasure to work on and it will be really amazing to see all that hard work pay off. 

The second action belongs to Lirika. The blue hammers are recycled flip-flops. We're eternally grateful to our lovely volunteer Charlie, who painstakingly sat down and put the whole thing back together again. All except the last few hammers as we'd cunningly hidden the screws for those at the back of our store cupboard, so Paulin is going to have to fish through a jamjar of bits and bobs to finish the job. Dés also needs to file down the flip-flop hammers as they're a little bigger than the rest.

However, now that the Lirika action is back together, Dés and Paulin should be able to mount it on the new keys to see whether it aligns. If it does, we can eventually put it into the new piano to test the strings, the sound quality, and the flip-flops.

So, we're getting really, really close to making a sound.

It's extremely exciting and a little nerve racking. There's a good chance three years of work might come to nothing... but we'll keep holding our breath.

Meanwhile, we were visited by a lovely lady called Janet Dewan. She's a long-term supporter of the project and here in Rwanda training anaesthetists. Whilst she's here, she likes to practice the piano, but they're so difficult to find, so Marion let her borrow hers. She made a very generous donation to the project and we're really grateful.

We also had a visit from a lovely Belgian couple who walked half of Kigali to come and find us. Unfortunately we forgot to take a photo, but they had a good look round the workshop and explained that their son is also a piano technician. He has a company called Polychord. If you're reading this blog, we'll definitely drop you a line soon!

Finally, we were called by a very prestigious client. We headed over to tune this 40-50 year old Nieer piano. Originally from Shanghai, it now lives at the American Ambassador's residence. So, in the space of a couple of weeks we have tuned a concert grand for an international pianist, and a cosy upright for the family of an international Ambassador. Not bad going.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Little Pins

Needs straightening and the felt put in, but the balance pins are roughly in place. 

The keys are taking a bit of time as some of them need remaking. Trying to get everything the right size is tricky, but those that do fit are balancing well and feel like proper piano keys when you hit them. 

Once the keyboard is finished, we can attach it to the piano, pull the strings up (they've gone very loose since the piano was first strung), insert the Lirika action and see if it plays. 

So much hard work has gone into this under very difficult circumstances. Dés had to purchase some new equipment last month as his shop was broken into. A neighbour broke in and stole some power tools then sold them. Unfortunately, he wasn't caught red-handed so no charges could be brought. Most of what is needed has been replaced, and power tools for the piano, such as the scroll saw and sander we bought, are kept at Dés's house, so weren't taken. 

It's been a bumpy ride but we're almost at the really exciting bit. 

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Keiko Nishizu

We had a really amazing night last night. Got a call from Serena at the end of last week, saying they needed their grand tuned for a concert by Keiko Nishizu.

You might remember, we fixed a damper on that piano last May. Back then it was our first time to take the action out of a grand. This time was our first concert tuning. We've tuned many private pianos, but never one that was then played by a renowned professional pianist.

The main tuning happened on Saturday.

We paused to admire this swanky fallboard. On most pianos, the lid just snaps shut, but not on a beautiful instrument like this.

Yesterday was the night of the concert and we turned up just before to give it a pre-performance check up. They'd moved it across the lobby, so we needed to make sure that the move hadn't affected the sound.


This piano really is a joy to work with. Very easy to tune with a great sound. Though that didn't stop the nerves. Even though Keiko performed a sound check, you still worry that maybe you missed something and a bum note will suddenly reveal itself with a clunk halfway through the performance. Luckily that didn't happen and we eventually relaxed into the performance. It was a really wonderful evening and there's an extreme swell of pride to know that you had a part in that. To hear an instrument you have tuned being played by a professional pianist to an appreciative audience is a really amazing feeling. 

We also learnt that both Serena and Mille Collines have been flying a tuner in from Kenya in the past. Hopefully we'll be able to help them out, because that's a very long way, and a lot of money, to spend on a piano tuner. As our own project progresses, we hope to train a couple of tuners in Kigali so that the city always has them.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Lam Duan

Really beautiful story pointed out to us by one of our supporters:

A British musician by the name of Paul Barton dragged out a piano into the middle of an elephant sanctuary and began playing classical music to a blind elephant named Lam Duan.

Read the full story here: Blind Elephant Starts To Dance Once She Hears The Pianist Playing To Comfort Her

If you love elephants, you can also check out the Sheldrick elephant sanctuary in Kenya and adopt one.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Hammering it Out

You may remember, back in the early stages of this project, that we enlisted the help of Ocean Sole in Kenya to create hammer heads made from recycled flip-flops. The idea was to see whether there might be any locally-available materials to make hammer heads from instead of importing felt from outside Africa. 

Thanks to our new volunteer, Charlie, we should soon be able to test this out. We have no idea at all what it would sound like, but it's exciting to try. He's made amazing progress putting the Lirika action back together, though the flip-flop hammers need a little filing to make the correct size.


Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Helping Hand

Please welcome Charlie to the team. A Londoner living in Kigali. 

He's got an engineering background and wanted to get involved with the project. We're giving him the task of rebuilding the Lirika action so that we can use it to test the prototype. Marion was supposed to be in charge of that but her day job has her pretty busy so we're practising delegation. 

He's got quite a job ahead of him.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Museum of Music

Happy New Year!

We've been a bit late getting started, but we're on the move again. Updates soon.

Meanwhile, check this out. Rwanda is opening a museum of music.

Maybe we could do a display about our piano someday.