|Viva el piano! Piano technician Ben Treuhaft (at top) has collected hundreds of pianos to bring to Cuba. Below, a young Cuban musician practices. Photos by LaaraMatsen.|
It was Jim Forman, the radical student leader and civil rights activist, who first put the bug in my ear about Cuba. I was in my early 20’s and was in New York getting my training as a piano tuner at Steinway & Sons. “Ben,” he told me, “Cuba is paradise.”
I’m not sure what he meant by paradise, but I immediately envisioned rum flowing like water, foot-long cigars, beautiful women, and of course great music.
I was so busy with other things (building harpsichords, starting up a doomed yogurt business, and falling in and out of love), that I didn’t give much thought to Cuba again until 1993 when, tired of tuning Berkeley baby boomers’ pianos, I joined the first Global Exchange in-your-face “freedom to travel” campaign which culminated in a 175-person-strong illegal delegation to Havana.
Although I did find rum and cigars in Cuba, I also discovered pianos hopelessly eaten up by salt air and piano-eating insects, piano tuners tuning with rusted car tools instead of tuning levers, and, thanks to the U.S. embargo, not even a tuning fork.
Even more disastrous, no tuners had been trained since the Russians had left in 1989 — along with their program to train blind Cuban musicians how to tune pianos.
In the Museo Nacional de Música, I saw a guitarist practicing in the hallway for want of a room, and kids practicing together on an antique grand. The all-girl classical octet swayed in the Caribbean heat, and the music had a grace and clarity that bespoke many hours of practice. I wondered how those niñas managed that, given that this wreck was supposed to be among the best pianos on the island.
Although at the time these lovely girls piqued my interest, little did I know that this would begin a 15-year odyssey that delivered 250 pianos to Cuban schools and sent large, international “tuners’ brigades” to repair and tune Cuba’s antiquated piano stock and train Cuban tuners. We named the project “Send A Piana To Havana.”
It began as my dream but it quickly became the dream of others. After our 15 minutes of CNN fame, people called from all over the world to offer pianos, money flowed like Cuban rum, and despite the State Department’s initial horror, we were able to ship our first container of seven pianos in early 1995. On the Cuban end, Santiago Rodriguez of the Instituto Cubano de Música played the Cuban bureaucracy like a Paderewski, providing us with a quirky Russian Lada sedan, much too much of the delicious comida criolla, and access to the music schools.
Later there would be Raquel Montejo, who knows every musician on the island and was able to enlist many of them; Zoia Barash, who put me up and fed me Russian food; José Altshuler, who gave me his extra apartment during extended visits and a realistic perspective on Cuban- American relations in his perfect English; and Armando Gomez and Yuly Diaz, my Cuban counterparts, who continue to steer our pianos through Cuba’s treacherous waters.
Meanwhile, the State Department under Clinton and Bush threw roadblocks in our way whenever the Cuban exile community made it worth their while.
Now after all these years, I’ve grown a grey beard just like Fidel’s, and I too am ready to retire, not with a whimper, however, but with a bang. Last year we got a $20,000 Donner Foundation grant to send my Cuban counterpart Armando to Canada’s premier school of piano technology and now he’s ready to run the world-class Newton Hunt Workshop and School of Tuning and Instrument Repair at the National School of Music in Havana.
Here in the U.S. we will still be raising money to send supplies to this workshop and school. Right now we’re in the middle of a major fund drive, and the people are responding. Each person who donates $50 or more gets a special parting gift: a strong LED flashlight on a “Send A Piana To Havana” keychain! So far we’ve raised almost enough money to ship the final 10 pianos (along with our usual tons of related aid) via Halifax on a Maltese freighter headed for Cuba.
The 7th International Tuners’ Brigade left on May 24. It included tuners from Iowa and Norway who needed financial help to attend and we hope to be able to recoup money for that, too.
For more information, or to make a donation, see www.SendAPiana.com.