A piano, broadly speaking, is not classed as a weapon of mass destruction. Bar one falling on your head, there’s little they can do in the line of collateral damage. Perhaps with a small bit of prompting, it might be possible to find some mothers, particularly around Feis Ceoil time (cailíní under-12) who will admit that, yes, the piano is a weapon of intense torture, and this is reasonable, but not usual. So when a licence to ship pianos from the US to Cuba is processed and granted by the Department of Nuclear and Missile Technology, it throws up some interesting questions.
Ben Treuhaft is an American piano tuner and proprietor of Manhattan’s Underwater Piano Shop (nowhere near the Sunken Cathedral), so-called because of his attempts to build a glass harmonica, playable under the sea, in order to communicate with dolphins. A colourful and larger-than-life character, for many years he tuned Vladimir Horowitz’ piano and he is possessed of considerable generosity and a keen sense of social justice. In 1994 he set up a scheme called Send a Piana to Havana, which aims to ship pianos and piano equipment to Cuba, where, despite the worldwide recognition of Cuban music, and the phenomenal success of projects such as the Buena Vista Social Club, the instruments out there are in very poor condition, ravaged by heat, humidity and eaten by pesky termites. By appealing to his client list, and many other well-informed and intrigued benefactors, Treuhaft has managed, to date, to ship almost 250 donated pianos to Havana. There they are distributed to schools, conservatories, and private homes.
But the US and Cuban administrations being what they are, these efforts are under constant intense scrutiny, and much valuable time and finance is spent navigating the bureaucratic quagmire. Firstly, the logistics of moving large instruments – the first batch of seven pianos was forced to travel in 20ft containers by rail from California, up the coast and across Canada to Montreal, on to Halifax, and thence by clapped-out Russian freighter back down to Havana where they languished on the docks for months before eventually finding their new homes. Then there is the trickier question of legality. Under current US law, trade with Cuba is forbidden, and travel only permissible after lengthy and convoluted application. In 1996, Treuhaft was fined $1.3 million and threatened with a ten-year jail sentence and closure of his shop if he defied a travel ban imposed on him. With characteristic aplomb, and seeing as it was Halloween, he donned a cunning disguise, a piano-costume, and travelled anyway. The resultant media storm, with major news coverage on CNN, forced the administration to drop the fine, and since then he has been travelling relatively unhindered.
And what of the pianos on the island? A hungry termite has no discrimination when it comes to scrapwood versus Steinway. There is precious little piano-tuning expertise in Cuba, many of the tuners that are there are elderly, and vital supplies such as strings, hammers, and tools are in chronically short supply due to the trade embargo. Every year, Treuhaft organises a posse of tuners to travel out, tune and maintain the pianos, bring out piano first-aid kits, and pass on basic information to trainee tuners there who are eager to learn.
Armando Gomez is one such trainee – a buildings administrator with the Instituto Superior de Arte, he was inspired to take a career break and retrain as a tuner. This involved a nine-month visit to Canada, undertaken with much personal difficulty and official opposition. It is his dream to establish a permanent school of piano-tuning in Cuba, and with the help of the international visiting tuners this is increasingly looking like a very real possibility.
Good will towards this project has been phenomenal, and with committed economic and political will, his dream can be realised. There is also much frothing at the mouth by American business interests, with the beady eye on the vast natural resources in Cuba, and it is pressure from this quarter which is fighting hard for the trade ban to be lifted – ‘not us left-wing-piano-tuning crazies’ as Treuhaft says.
Earlier this year, Galway-based Irish piano tuner, Ciaran Ryan, travelled to Cuba as a piano boy-scout, and on his return to Ireland, fired up by this extraordinary story, he set about organising some fund-raising activities here. Word went out and before long he had enlisted the support of the piano playing fraternity and the music world at large. Piano stars such as Barry Douglas, Joanna McGregor and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, with Mel Mercier (percussion), and the Vladimir Karell/Conor Guilfoyle Quartet eagerly signed up voluntarily to be associated with this unorthodox scheme, and willingly agreed to play in two large-scale and very glamourous concerts in December in Vicar St, Dublin, and the Black Box, Galway. A highlight will be Ben Treuhaft himself, interviewed on the stage in Dublin by MC John Kelly. Award-winning New York photographer, Laara Matsen, who has covered much of the tuning activities in Cuba, is bringing a slide-show to be projected during the concerts.
Next February, Ryan, along with two other leading Irish tuners, Alex Jeffers and Paul Wade, will descend on the island along with the booty. There they will work alongside Treuhaft, Armando Gomez and many others who are energetically throwing themselves into this plan to establish permanent facilities for the dissemination of technical expertise in the area of piano maintainance. There might also just be a touch of nose-thumbing at the American administration, for being churlish in their efforts to thwart what is an honest and meritorious gesture, which will have long-lasting benefits for the music population of the island. Maybe it’s time to enlist the cailíní under-12.
The Send A Piana To Havana fundraiser concerts take place on Sunday December 10th in Vicar Street, Dublin, and Wednesday December 13th in the Black Box, Galway. The line-up includes Barry Douglas, Joanna McGregor, Mícheal Ó Súilleabháin and Mel Mercier, the Vladimir Karell/Conor Guilfoyle Quartet, the Newpark Cubanos (in Dublin) and Samboeire (in Galway).
Published on 1 November 2006