Mission to Cuba is on key Tuners: The piano brigade is at work at Havana's elite music school, restoring old pianos and teaching the craft to Cuban counterparts.

Cuba Awaits The Pope

January 11, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAVANA -- Most of the artisans in this dilapidated Cuban capital are feverishly trying to get the place fixed up in time for the arrival of Pope John Paul II next week.

But about two dozen piano tuners and restorers from the United States, Canada and Europe are here to repair Cuba's pianos, and they'd be here whether the pope was coming or not.

They are working for 10 days at the Instituto Superior de Arte, Cuba's elite music school, restoring old pianos and teaching their craft to their Cuban counterparts.

Ben Treuhaft, a 50-year-old piano tuner from Berkeley, Calif., organized the humanitarian musical effort. He has also arranged the shipment of 60 pianos to Cuba over the past two years through his "Send a Piana to Havana" project.

And he brings fellow tuners and technicians to Cuba to repair the instruments, which are sent to schools and piano teachers.

"I have a computer list of piano tuners I know," Treuhaft says. "I sent them all letters and said, 'Hey, how about some Commie piano tuning?' "

Treuhaft describes himself as a "red diaper baby."

"My parents were both Communists," he says. "But you don't really inherit that. I wasn't very political until my first trip to Cuba."

Wearing a gray and black bandanna, white T-shirt, bluejeans and Birkenstock sandals, he sits at a workbench as he talks, filing the felt on a row of piano hammers to give them a better shape. "It makes it sound 10 times better," he says.

The music school is in the old Havana Country Club, a favorite gathering place for the capital's wealthy elite in the days before Castro's revolution drove them from the country.

The main building of the institute, the old clubhouse, still bears vestiges of its glory days. A driveway lined with royal palms leads up to the clubhouse with its white stucco walls and red tile roof.

Students wipe their shoes on a piece of cardboard before setting foot on the white marble floor in the entryway.

But the rest of the complex shows the same signs of decay seen all over Havana.

The building housing the piano workshop, covering what was once the eighth hole of the golf course, looks as if it has not been painted since it was built after the revolution.

Students from all over Cuba come to study classical music and the throbbing sounds that made the island's music famous. A cacophony of trumpets and saxophones and drums and violins and other instruments rises from students practicing on the grounds.

And, of course, the pianos.

The 'piano graveyard'

Pianos in various stages of disassembly are scattered around one cluttered room in the school. At one end of the room is the "Cuban piano graveyard," full of old beaten-up upright pianos -- Wurlitzers, Ludwigs, Seybolds. They will never be played again. They have been cannibalized for their parts.

The people whom Treuhaft has gathered here are among the best in their field. "Some of these guys are really famous," he says. "That guy over there, he has the best shop in Vienna."

The guy from Vienna, Bernhard Balas, says he is anxious to teach what he can to Cuban piano technicians but realizes that he can only do so much in such a short time. "It usually takes me two years to teach an apprentice."

Balas, a tall, heavyset man with curly blond hair, walks around the room handing out pens emblazoned with "Piano-Forte Klaviersalon" (his company's name) to fellow tuners and anyone else nearby.

As he speaks, four Cuban piano technicians arrive from rural provinces to see what the piano brigade can teach them.

A family tradition

Ricardo Fernandez Estrada, who came from Camaguey in east central Cuba, says the art of piano repair was traditionally passed from generation to generation. "The grandfather taught the father. The father taught the son," he says. "This is disappearing in Cuba."

Fernandez began tuning and repairing pianos about 10 years ago, when he lost most of his vision in an industrial accident and could not hold a factory job anymore. He says there will be a sharing of ideas between the artisans from other countries. "Here, we have our way of tuning pianos, and they have another," he says. "It will be an exchange."

Treuhaft first came to Cuba 4 1/2 years ago on a lark. He was sitting in a hotel bar, listening to the house pianist tinkle out what is locally called "musica de sopa," or soup music. "You know, like 'Strangers in the Night,' " he says.

After the set, he struck up a conversation with the pianist and soon received an invitation to the Cuban's home, where the musician proudly showed off his upright piano.

"It was so out of tune," Treuhaft recalls.

And a mission was born. "That was all I did my first visit search out pianos to tune," he says.

Soon after his return to the United States, it occurred to him that pianos were in short supply in Cuba, while many were gathering dust in the United States.

He bought a piano with some inheritance money and arranged to have it shipped with humanitarian aid being sent to Cuba by a group of Protestant ministers.

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