Friday, 18 May 2018

88 and Out

Finally taken all 88 hammers off the action frame last week and delivered it to Chillington to see whether they can replicate it. 

Started by taking each hammer, damper and whippen off one by one and labelling them, then discovered it was easier just to do six or seven hammers, then dampers, then whippens, then labels. Sped things up a bit. Whole process took about five hours.  


Gave the whole thing a bit of a wipe down. Fifty years of dust in between the pieces.

Not to mention a wee eight-legged friend. Not sure how long she's been there, but we hope she owns earmuffs.  

Popped the frame out in the sun to dry.

Then, the next morning, Marion sat the frame on her lap and took it by public moto to Chillington. Public motorbikes (motos) are the fastest and most convenient way of getting around the city, and the frame was surprisingly light with all the hammers removed.
Public Moto
Piano Action on a Moto

Now it's just a case of waiting to hear what Chillington say.

Monday, 30 April 2018


This beautiful piece, Requiem Pour Pianos by Romain Thiery, reminds us of our recent trip to DRC and all the pianos we've seen that have been relegated to mere decoration.

You can find more beautiful pictures of abandoned pianos here and here. Every one of them still has a melody resonating within.

Here's Marion playing an old piano she found under a tree in her home village years ago. Please, if you know of a broken or abandoned piano in Rwanda - call us. Investing in a piano is investing in all the music inside it, now and for generations to come.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Not a Catastrophe

Two of the Kigali Keys rescue cats, Gizmo and Howl, explaining to Marion how to take the hammers off the action.

Oh, no, wait, that was Désiré. These guys were just there to help.

Things are getting interesting. Whilst we wait for Dés and his team to prep the piano for stringing, Marion decided to take a crack at removing the hammers from the action frame. Once we've stripped the frame, we can take it down to Chillington to see if we can replicate it.

Some pianos, including the original Lirika, have three pedals. Some have two. The current thinking on ours is to go with two - the sustain and half-blow - and ditch the mute. The mute places a strip of felt between the hammers and the strings, which makes the piano play quietly. Useful for practising when you don't want to annoy your neighbours. But mutes are fiddly to construct and sometimes the hammers get caught in the felt. Marion recently removed one from a piano because it had that problem.

We're definitely keeping the other two pedals. The half-blow raises the hammers closer to the strings, also creating a quieter sound, and the sustain - everyone's favourite pedal - lifts the dampers so that the notes keep resonating over one another. The pedals are connected to the action frame using poles. This is the half-blow and sustain in action.

Taking the action apart has been particularly terrifying. It always is when you start to deconstruct something complicated, because you worry whether you'll ever be able to get it back together again. Thankfully, it looks a lot harder than it is.

We've done a little video.

So, we think we're on solid ground.

As well as the three main parts, there's also a little let-off button, which (to put it simply) regulates the hammer timing. This has a tiny screw, which requires a special screwdriver to remove. One of the most nerve-racking issues is making sure we collect up all the tiny little screws. Losing them would make it very hard to put everything back together again in the future.

Removing the Let-off Screw

And the Let-off Button.

Let-off Screw

Let-off Button

Each key we remove goes into a paper envelope with the number of the key (1-88) and the note (A0-C8) on the front.

L-R: Damper, Whippen, Hammer
The top treble section doesn't have dampers.

The 87th note, B7

Thankfully, the makers of our piano very helpfully branded each hammer with its position number.

Then, all of the envelopes go into a box with a cat.

The cat is very important. 

Couple of cool techie shots...

Damperless Treble

It's going to take another week or so before it's completed, due to other commitments, but there's more exciting news to come soon.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Kigali Keys In Action

It's been a busy week this week. 

We received a donation that has allowed us to purchase a scroll saw and sander which will make it a lot easier to finish the keys and give them a better finish. We're extremely grateful to the Schofields for their support, and you can find a full list of our donors on our Hall of Fame page.

The above is a set of custom-made tuning bits which Alex donated. We're getting closer and closer to stringing. 

Marion's also been out and about helping to fix some problems with pianos across the city. We were back at the Korean Church in Kinyinya, checking out a sticking key. We received some very yummy Korean chocolate mud pies as a thank you. Nomnomnom.

We're also starting work later this year on the Japanese piano from Nagasaki. Starting with a full clean-up, then moving on to rebushing some of the flange pins and perhaps replacing a hammer. We need some equipment for this, though. It takes a while for parts to arrive, so we'll do the clean-up in May, then probably set to work on the rest in August.

In the meantime, Désiré has given Marion a tutorial on removing the hammers from the Lirika action. We're taking them all off so that we can take the action frame to Chillington to see if they can replicate it. We'll also be taking the action parts around town to find a laser cutter that is capable of manufacturing everything we need. We've got a supply of hammer springs and bridle straps, but the rest needs making.

Once the bridges are in place, the idea is for Marion to start stringing whilst Désiré completes the keys and Chillington figures out the action frame. Should help speed things up a bit.

Watch this space...

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.