That first piano almost didn't leave the United States.
Customs inspectors "demanded the pastors remove it because it didn't qualify as humanitarian aid," Treuhaft says. The pastors said that if the customs agents wanted the piano off, they'd have to carry it themselves.
The piano stayed in the shipment -- newly classified as humanitarian aid.
For several years, Treuhaft's project flew in the face of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Although the project is licensed now, Treuhaft still faces a $10,000 fine from the Treasury Department for trading with the enemy.
But the Treasury Department hasn't pressed to get the money, he says.
Treuhaft says he sees his project as a strike against the decades-old trade embargo.
"It's not exactly a political act," he says. "It's an act of pi-anarchy."
'It's all about music'
But the colleagues he brings with him are here for the pianos.
"It's all about music. It's got nothing to do with politics," says Fred Hickman, who owns Hickman Piano Service in Annapolis.
This is the first trip to Cuba for nearly all the tuners and technicians. For artisans used to working on Steinway grands, they got quite a shock when they saw the instruments at the music school.
"The ones that have been here for a long time, they're the worst pianos I've ever seen," says Spike Taylor of Toronto. "A lot weren't good to begin with. They're usually Russian, and they weren't built for this climate."
"It's really primitive," Hickman says. "Most pianos are vulnerable because of wear, the humid climate and the termites. Termites have a field day here. It's the same thing that's eating the buildings."
One of the piano restorers is working on killing termites by wrapping the pianos in plastic, taking out the oxygen and filling it with nitrogen.
Then, Treuhaft says, they are searching for a method to prevent re-infestation.
So far, the best method they have found is rubbing the pianos with hot chili peppers.
Despite the poor conditions for piano preservation and music-making, the visitors say they were struck by the resilience the Cuban music students.
John Foy, a piano restorer from Greensboro, N.C., recalls taking a walk his first evening in Havana and hearing the strains of a Chopin etude. He stopped to sit in a courtyard and listen. Foy, who studied at the Oberlin Music Conservatory, recognized the etude as one of Chopin's more difficult.
"He was playing on a horribly tuned piano, but playing so well," Foy says. "It was really very touching."
Pub Date: 1/11/98