One very sunny day last year, in March (2007), a small party from Ireland descended on Havana laden with radio mics, cameras, sound people, leather, felt and wire. Cameras, leather, felt and wire, I can hear you asking, brows, naturally, a little furrowed? Well…could be a country crafts series, or... what about a late night, one-off, tropical bondage short? Actually, no. Rest easy.

This little group were, rather, a very wholesome and enthusiastic team of professionals which included one documentary film maker, a three-person sound and photography team, one radio producer and three highly-skilled and well-known piano tuners and repairers. And what these aficionados had done was to think up, and then throw themselves into, a great and very worthy project bent on supporting the various and wonderful pianos of Havana. Furthermore, they were here to record some of that work and also to hand over a veritable pile of Euros donated by the very music-loving Irish public. But more of that later.

Having furrowed your wee brows, you may well now be racking your brains trying to remember where on earth you’ve seen someone with something to do with Havana and pianos blazoned all over the front, or back, of their T-shirts. And, so, you’re obviously asking, hasn’t all this been done before? Well, yes, but no. And to bring you right up to date we also have to go back a little in time.

Many people already know something of the Herculean efforts of the larger-than-life American piano tuner, Ben Treuhaft, and his early 1990’s Send a Piano to Havana (SAPTH) scheme. Treuhaft collected old pianos from all over the US, shipped them to Cuba, and deliberately travelled there with a gang of other specialists—in blatant contravention of the US blockade/embargo—in order to tune and fix them up. As a result of this work, and, courtesy of US philanthropic funding, Treuhaft’s man in Havana—former maintenance-turned-piano supervisor, Armando Gomez—had been sent to Canada for a year’s study and returned to Cuba late in 2006 to set up a workshop with the aim of teaching piano tuning in the capital. So far, so good, but now back to Ireland.

Treuhaft’s work undoubtedly has been, and continues to be, inspirational but the Irish team had a different focus.

It struck me—Irish piano tuner Ciaran Ryan told me, over a very strong and enamel-destroying Cuban espresso—that at this stage the most important thing to do was not to drag clapped-out pianos to Cuba, but rather to offer skills and materials so that Cubans could take care of their own pianos. Rather than travel to Cuba and do the paternalistic thing of ‘doing it for them,’ we wanted more to offer ourselves as trainers in the hope that we could play some small part in supporting Cuba and her outstanding musical tradition, and, of course, save some pianos in the process! What was needed was good training—to tune and repair—and the tools to do that with.

And that’s where the leather, felt and wire all come in. To understand this story even further you also need to know that in Cuba, since the 1970s (mainly for lack of public resources, and then because most ordinary people don’t have the extra cash to have their pianos seen to), there have, sadly, been almost no piano tuners trained there. This music-soaked island of over eleven million people has relied on about eight well-experienced tuners—most of them getting well on in years—to look after their country’s instruments. Add to this some serious heat, high humidity, very hungry termites and a severe shortage of piano-repairing materials, and it’s easy to see why the deteriorating stock of instruments is, as Cubans say, en candela! (on fire, in a bad state).

So in 2005, it was a very curious Ciaran Ryan who decided to travel to Cuba, on his own, and to take a look around for himself. There, he met Treuhaft and a couple of other trainers and they worked on pianos in two or three of Havana’s music schools alongside a small group of Cubans who’d picked up bits and pieces of piano knowledge from previous visits. He had what he well remembers as “...a fantastic, inspiring, hard-working two weeks in the company of really enthusiastic young Cubans. So I returned, very excitedly, to Ireland and almost immediately started planning the next trip.”

His idea was to round up a few tuner colleagues, raise some money and then return for a slightly longer period to work more closely with the young tuners. The money-raising would be a fairly modest effort, he thought. But he was very wrong. Although Ciaran wasn’t surprised by the willingness of Irish people to get involved, he wasn’t at all prepared for the level of support he found in his home country. There is, quite naturally, a strong historical and political affinity between the two islands of Cuba and Ireland, but the sheer level of help and enthusiasm that developed for the project was, in Ciaran’s words, “quite overwhelming.”

Two concerts were planned, one in Galway and the other in Dublin, and, with huge publicity—from local papers, to television and radio (with voice-over by US actor Martin Sheen who happened to be studying in Galway at the time)—they were hailed as “amongst the most extraordinary and fascinating projects to have emerged in recent years.” The event attracted the free services of some of Ireland’s most famous and prestigious performing musicians, including the traditional/fusion pianist Michael O Suilleabhain, traditional percussionist Mel Mercer, Tchaikovsky piano competition prize-winner Barry Douglas and, internationally famous for her world music collaborations, pianist Joanna McGregor. On top of all this there was the good old obligatory raffle and some very lucky people won either a box of Cuba’s finest cigars, a case of the best Cuban rum or, amazingly, a piano!

And so—reported John Kelly of State broadcaster RTE Lyric FM—here we have…the grandest of instruments celebrated in all its glorious diversity, from the sensual sophistication of the classics to the pyrrhic passion of Cuban Jazz. Rum, melody and cash are going to exact the piano’s revenge on those pesky termites!

Ben Treufalt was also on hand to help out and was no doubt accompanied, in spirit, by his famous mother, none other than the writer and political activist, the late Jessica Mitford. Unsurprisingly, this connection with the Guinness family in Ireland meant even more publicity, and so the Dublin concert was broadcast, with much aplomb, and with an already very full purse raised from the two concerts, on New Year’s Day of 2007.

Meantime, there was a mad flurry of communication between Dublin and Havana about the pianos to be worked on and the young Cubans selected to work on them. What to bring, which pianos to teach on, how many students would be best? They settled on three grands—a Mokba Russian concert grand, a mid-sized American Kimball grand, and a 6.5-ft modern Yamaha—all very different, and all in need of some serious restoration. The Irish contingent took all the necessary aforementioned felt, leather, piano wire, glues, tools and anything else they could think of, and spent the best part of a month working alongside six young Cubans in a workshop set up by Armando Gómez at ENA (Havana’s pre-academy level arts and music school). There, they finished work on the pianos “but, more importantly,” added Ciaran “we finished feeling pretty confident that the students had learnt a lot more about their chosen trade.”

The aim is now to work together with Cuban institutions and to set up a new and independent exchange project. Ciaran believes that the young Cubans need much more time working with experienced tuners and with good resources, and that it will be more effective, for all concerned, to offer those workshops in Ireland. So the exchange they envisage is a six-month training course in Ireland for the young Cuban tuners and an equal time for a group of young, Irish musicians to go and study in Cuba.

As yet, nothing has been confirmed, but communication is ongoing and both sides are optimistic that sometime in the Spring of 2008 the first of these exchanges will take place. “Then, hopefully,” added Ciaran, as we listened to yet another hopelessly out-of-tune piano being bravely battled with in an uptown hotel lobby, “these young Cubans will become the next generation of teachers, and a trade that is now dying out in Cuba will really start to be revived.” 

That’s the hope, and it’s a great one.

For more information about the Irish piano tuners’ project or the radio and documentary programmes being made about them, please contact Ciaron Ryan at ciaranryan1a@eircom.net, independent radio producer Nuala Hayes at twochairs@eircom.net and independent documentary filmmaker Ellen Cranitch at lncran@indigo.ie
An Irish piano-tuner in Havana
Sep / 2007