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Daring To Dream: A Carpenter Tries To Build A Piano In Rwanda

It's Monday afternoon and Désiré Mulumeoderwa is alone in his workshop, an oasis of quiet and creativity from the parade of motorbikes and perpetual hustle outside on Kigali's streets. The mud floor is littered with planks of wood in all shapes and sizes, scraps of plastic and other discarded materials Mulumeoderwa uses in his carpentry work.

Chairs, cupboards and bed frames are in various stages of construction around the dimly-lit shop. Off in a corner by the door is a project unlike any other.

Mulumeoderwa is building an upright piano.

It's a new undertaking for the carpenter of 20 years — and for Rwanda. The finished product would be the first Rwandan-made piano, a musical milestone for this landlocked East African country. It would also be the first such instrument produced in Africa since South Africa-based Dietmann, a German company, shut down production in 1989.

But the road to victory is a difficult one. Much like Rwanda, which is known as the "land of a thousand hills," the mission to build a piano faces a series of challenges, from accessibility of parts to the skills necessary to make it a success .

Marion Grace Woolley (left) had a crazy idea. Could carpenter Désiré Mulumeoderwa build a piano? He thinks he can.
/ Alexandra E. Petri for NPR
Alexandra E. Petri for NPR
Marion Grace Woolley (left) had a crazy idea. Could carpenter Désiré Mulumeoderwa build a piano? He thinks he can.

"This will be hard to make the first piano, but the second one? The second one will be easy," Mulumeoderwa says self-assuredly as a shy smile slides across his face.

A Mad Idea

That unflappable confidence was the catalyst for what his British-born business partner initially deemed a crazy, mad idea.

"It's not that it's a particularly innovative thing we're doing," Mulumeoderwa's piano-building partner Marion Grace Woolley says. "It's where we're doing it that's so strange. It still blows my mind when I walk into that workshop and see the dirt floor or workers using shards of glass to smooth the wood, and I think, 'Wow, you can actually build something this complex on the backstreets of Kigali.'"

Woolley, who's lived on and off in Rwanda since 2007, grew up around pianos. For her, a piano makes a house feel like a home. She says she'd long sought one for her home in Rwanda but had found the word "piano" in Rwanda to be synonymous with electric keyboard. The electric kind were easy to find. Tracking down a stringed version was far more complicated.

Her search led her to a 1968 Russian Lirika upright, for sale by an Egyptian expat. The piano was advertised for 1 million Rwandan francs ― about $1,160 ― which was beyond Woolley's budget. A few keys were broken, and the instrument was out of tune. Still, Woolley, who works in non-profit consulting, says she knew "no one ever sells pianos in Rwanda." So she seized the opportunity.

"It could have been falling apart on all the sides," Woolley explains. "But it was a piano and it played. It was the only piano that I had seen in about three years."

She bought the Lirika in December 2016, and the repairs became a passion project. She watched YouTube videos, posted questions on piano forums and emailed manufacturers.

One day soon after Woolley brought the Lirika home, Mulumeoderwa came to drop off the tables and bed he made for her. His eyes lit up when he saw the piano, she says. She wondered: Could he make something like that?

Mulumeoderwa inspected the Lirika, even though he already knew the answer. He'd spent the past two decades working with wood ― a key material for a piano.

"When I see something [made] of wood, I know I can make what I see," he says. "I told Marion, 'I am sure I can make the piano.'"

Striking A Chord On Indiegogo

With that, Kigali Keys was born, named after Rwanda's capital city.

The duo set up a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in March 2017 with the goal of raising around $8,000. By June, they'd reached their target, and Mulumeoderwa got started. He puts his normal carpentry work aside for one day a week devoted exclusively to the piano.

"This is the big challenge, because this one I cannot give to someone to make," Mulumeoderwa says. "I can only do it myself."

While woodwork comes easily to Mulumeoderwa, he has needed help finding other materials for the nearly 12,000 parts inside the piano's body.

For Kigali Keys to succeed, Woolley had to deconstruct her long-sought Lirika ― taking it apart so Mulumeoderwa could study the skeleton and copy the parts.

"The biggest risk is not being able to put my own piano back together," Woolley says. "I have this nightmare that at the end of all this, I'll end up with no piano at all. But I am confident we can do it and put [mine] back together."

Other steps, too, are ensuring the duo meets their goal. They've employed the knowledge of specialists at Howard Pianos Industries in Wisconsin, U.S.A., and a father-son technician team at Key-Sure Pianos in Durban, South Africa. Woolley has been in touch with the folks at Howard to source materials and to learn about the piano's more technical aspects.

"I thought [the project] sounded exciting, and it sounded like she had a lot to learn but was pursuing the avenues she needed to complete the project," Howard says. That includes purchasing necessary parts from manufacturers, communicating with designers and builders, working off the manual Pianos Inside Out by Mario Igrec and using the Lirika as a template.

Woolley's piano is in pieces throughout Mulumeoderwa's shop: The bare bones hug the doorway of a modest office, the Lirika's old keyboard is inside, laid out across a desk like a big, toothy smile.

One Key At A Time

One recent Monday afternoon, as the skies begin to close in for rain, Mulumeoderwa places a plank of European pine on a workbench and plugs in a jigsaw cutter. Wielding the tool with his right hand as his left holds the wood steady, Mulumeoderwa cuts in a concentrated slide upward, the angry cry of the machine breaking through the otherwise quiet room.

"I choose special places where I cut the wood," he explains. "There can't be a crack [in the plank]. Maybe we can make more than five keys with one meter plank, but if we want good quality, there is no way we can make more than five."

He estimates it will take him three weeks to make all 88 keys. Then he'll move on to the piano's soundboard.

Some hurdles have slowed overall progress on the piano, though. The string frame, piano strings and the action ― three fundamental elements of any piano, particularly the action, which connects the keys and the strings to produce the piano's sound — require parts that aren't made in this part of Africa. To avoid import fees, Mulumeoderwa and Woolley have had to think outside the box.

For example, instead of using felt — an elusive fabric in Africa — to make the piano's hammers, Woolley and Mulumeoderwa used recycled flip-flops sourced from a social enterprise in Kenya.

"We are going to give them a go and see how it works," Woolley says, acknowledging they might have to reassess. "We won't know if it works until we have the instrument stringed."

Forging their own string frame, typically made of cast-iron, has been the biggest accomplishment so far, according to Woolley. Their first attempt, in which they worked with a Rwandan metal worker who owns a small foundry in Kigali, was unsuccessful. Mulumeoderwa suggested they try Chillington, a metalwork factory in the city that specializes in wheelbarrow production. The result, with an engraved logo for Kigali Keys — a K flanked by two musical notes — beat all expectations.

"I posted a picture of the final gold-coated frame on a forum about pianos," Woolley says. "They didn't believe that it had been made in Rwanda."

Strings, however, proved difficult to find in Africa. It took the team months — and a lot of expert help from around the world — to track down the thin, steel strings needed for the instrument's midsection and treble. Woolley turned to South Africa's Key-Sure Pianos to determine the exact measurements they needed for their prototype and to see whether they can be acquired in Africa. Unfortunately, Woolley says, the team eventually had to purchase the strings from England, from the Oxford-based Early Keyboard Agency.

Their creativity has been driven in part by the Made in Rwanda campaign, a government initiative launched in 2016 to encourage local production and consumption. Woolley and Mulumeoderwa hope to showcase their final prototype at 2018's "Made in Rwanda Expo," typically held at the end of each year, with the goal of one day building pianos and selling them to Rwanda's emerging middle class and expats.

A Master Builder's Doubts

Some are skeptical about their plan, like Lothar Schell a master piano builder and former factory manager at Dietmann, the last known manufacturer on the continent. When the company was still in operation, they exported pianos to more than 33 countries. Only a small number were sold on the continent, specifically to South Africa, Egypt, Namibia and Rhodesia, known today as Zimbabwe.

The 80-year-old piano consultant, who is still active in the industry, considers Mulumeoderwa's task too difficult. Among his concerns are the lack of available materials in Africa and the preciseness of the construction, particularly the piano's soundboard and its cast-iron frame. It's one thing to build a frame, he says, but another thing to make it strong enough to take the 27,000 pounds of tension produced from the piano's strings without buckling or breaking.

It's more than the frame that needs to be just right for the piano to work.

"A piano is built to the climate," Schell says. "It needs about 60 percent moisture content in the air, and [a temperature] of 22 to 23 degrees Celsius [around 73 degrees Fahrenheit]."

Despite the odds, Kigali Keys is aiming to end on a high note.

While the prototype is still in the works — they hope to finish within six months — Kigali Keys' debut pianist is already lined up. Eizinanan Pascal, a Rwandan musician and piano teacher who goes by the name Paco, will be first to tickle the keys.

"I can't stop smiling," the 26-year-old says. "I am so excited to hear it. It will be so good to see a Rwandan guy play a piano that was made here in Rwanda."

Alexandra E. Petri is a writer for National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic online. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Elle, The Lily and EurasiaNet.

Reporting for this piece was supported by a fellowship from the International Women's Media Foundation.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alexandra E. Petri