Tuesday 20 December 2016

Simon's Cat

I finally wrote Sophie & Howl's names on their paperwork last week, admitting to myself that I'm keeping them. Ever since then, I've come to the conclusion that Simon's Cat is a factual documentary of my life.

Sunday 18 December 2016


Thanks to an influx of recent work, I decided to treat myself to a piano for Christmas. It was quite a big decision as real pianos (as opposed to keyboards) are not easy to come by in Rwanda. An Egyptian gentleman was selling his as he was moving back home after many years in Rwanda. It's a Russian-made Lirika upright. According to the serial number it was made in 1968, making it fifty years old the year after next. It would be wonderful to know how it first came to the country.

It was a really big decision because pianos don't come cheap here. What you can pick up for £300-400 in the UK, costs more than double here. I paid close to £1,000 for this and it was not in the best condition, but I knew that if I didn't snap it up, someone else would and there might not be another on the market any time soon. A brand new Chinese upright costs around £9,000, which is right out of my price range.

My wonderful friend Vincent organised the move for me, hiring a truck and six blokes to get it from Kayovu to Kacyiru, then down my garden steps. No easy feat. They quoted around £25 for the job, but I raised that to a sensible figure.

The first order of business was to open everything up and give it a thorough cleaning. Almost fifty years of dust had accumulated inside and it was looking messy. 




Bizarrely, I even found a festive cocktail stick rattling around the peddles. I'm going to save it and put it in the many cocktails I intend to sip whilst playing Wild Rover and other pub classics.

On the whole, it's in fairly good condition. There's no rust around the pegs, no cracks in the back and no broken strings.

Sophie & Howl Helping Me Inspect
But there were a few problem keys. I cannot thank Howard Piano Industries enough for their fantastic YouTube tutorial channel. I had looked inside a piano before, but never really understood what I was looking at, or realised how much you can poke about with things. I started with their Diagnosing the Sticking Piano Key tutorial and took it from there. I had about five sticking keys. One was caused by the bridle strap popping out of the hammer hole, another by worn felt in the balance hole, and three by broken elbows, which required a quick trip into town to purchase superglue.

Broken Elbow

Fixed Elbow
But there's still a couple of keys I can't work out. I think it's either worn springs or over-tightening of the jack flange. In a moment of over-enthusiastic mayhem, I decided to have a go at removing the entire action from the piano. The action is a rack along the middle which holds all the moving parts of the piano - everything that happens after you hit a key. You can lift the entire thing out like a fish skeleton.

Piano Action Indicated by Golden Bar (Hammer Rest)

Piano With Action Removed

Isolated Action

What You Would See If You Were A String

This was fascinating for me. I had a really good poke around. You can flick each of the hammer mechanisms manually to check everything's working and make sure each of the dampeners lift off the strings properly. It brought me to the conclusion that the remaining problem isn't the action, but the keys, which seem to be too stiff to fall smoothly. I've tried fiddling with the felt but I think I'm going to need to seek professional advice.

It's even harder to find a piano tuner than it is to find a piano in Kigali. I made a massive cock-up of getting the action back into the piano - five times. My arms were about to give out when I finally mastered the technique. It's so much easier than I tried to make it.

It's been fascinating and infuriating in equal measure today, but I've just ordered a piano tuning kit off eBay. You can also use piano tuning software and phone apps to check the strings, so I've decided I'm going to have a go at tuning Lirika myself. Having spent this much on her, I like the idea of it being my project. It's been so hard to locate a piano tuner that I thought, perhaps if I can master this, I might be able to do it as a hobby on the side, or pass on the skills. There's nothing quite like fixing a broken piano key and hearing it make music again. I'm not much of a piano player, but I do think the inside of a piano is insanely beautiful. I'm planning to play mine with the front open as much as possible.

Thursday 15 December 2016

Jef Neve

Went to a fabulous jazz concert at the Belgian Ambassador's residence on Monday night. It turns out the guys we went gorilla trekking with were musician Jef Neve and his crew. They were playing one final gig before flying home to Belgium that night.

They mentioned the gig on the way back down the mountain, and Jo, Maia and myself couldn't resist. We got a shout out as he walked on stage, just before he sat down and did this!

We were utterly amazed, and rather grateful the silverback stopped when it did. Gorillas and muddy slopes could have been quite a risk to his repertoire.

They'd just got back from Lake Kivu and Jef played a song named after it, which he'd composed on the road. Hope he records that online, it was really beautiful. I was particularly impressed to read on the poster that he plays with C├ęcile Kayirebwa, a renowned Rwandan musician resident in Belgium. If you don't know her work, check out Indamukanyo and Urubamby'Ingwe

Jef introduced a couple of local musicians who accompanied him. One was Deo Muyakazi, who is a really talented Inanga player, the traditional harp of Rwanda. It had been specially adapted to plug into an amp.

Later in the evening there was a wonderful blend of piano, guitar and inanga. Something perhaps not heard anywhere else in the world?

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Gorilla Trekking

A completely fabulous, if extremely knackering, weekend away with the girls. 

Back in May I was supposed to go gorilla trekking with my friend Paul, but decided to throw myself on a bonfire instead, so managed to get an extension from Rwanda Tourism. My friend Jo (of Rwandan Adventures) arranged the tickets, and Maia decided to make this her Christmas present to herself, which was funny as she once said she would only go and see the gorillas when she was ready to leave Rwanda. She's just opened a tapas bar and night school. 

The day before we were due to leave, Facebook rather sweetly pointed out that it was eight years since I last went trekking gorillas, back in 2008 with Dad and Marilyn. 

It's the end of the short wet season, and the weather on the morning of departure didn't feel like a great omen.

For me and Maia this was our first time out of Kigali in ages. It's the same when you live in any city. You get swept away in your work and daily routines. It was so good to get out and remember just how stunningly beautiful Rwanda is.

It is Dian Fossey's final resting place and there are plenty of mountains, gorillas and mist.

We stopped off to meet Jo's friend Elaine on the way north. Elaine and her husband, Kavos, have lived in Rwanda for many, many years and run a really lovely little guesthouse called The Garden House in Musanze. They don't really advertise, so it's word-of-mouth. It's an old colonial house with an open fire and terracotta tiling. Elaine has so many incredible stories to tell. It really is a special place. 

Then we drove a few minutes up the road to a total surprise.

Well, for me. Jo and Maia already knew about this.

Our lovely friend Nicole has built an extremely upmarket hotel with her husband Robert. It's called Five Volcanoes because you can see five massive volcanoes from the restaurant.

I last visited in March last year when they were still building, so it was incredible to see it again now that everything is complete. Robert has worked as a tour guide for the gorillas for many years and they had absolutely every little luxury covered. The showers were incredible - and cobbled! The staff are really friendly, and greet you with hot towels and juice. They even rent backpacks, gaiters and rain macs if you forget to bring them, plus you get a packed lunch for trekking and your shoes cleaned when you get back. There were even hot water bottles in the beds. I could not believe we were staying there. The rooms cost more than my monthly rent for a single night. Very lovely of Nicole and Robert.

The next day we were up at quarter to six in the morning for a yummy breakfast, then into the car and up the road to Volcanoes National Park.


Couldn't believe how beautiful the weather was. We were really lucky it was a gorgeous, sunny morning. It was freezing cold (well, about 13c) during the night, as the temperature drops steeply in the mountains. Coming from lowland Kigali, where it rarely gets below 17c, it was pretty nippy. But a few minutes into walking we were sweating profusely. That may also have had something to do with the amount of wine we'd drunk the previous night. Before we'd even left Kigali, Maia was dishing out fresh brownies from her kitchen, along with white wine over ice in classy plastic cups. It was like an adult children's party. We realise we need to go on holiday more often.

Things got a bit bumpy on the road, forcing us to abandon our own car and cadge a lift in another group's overlander.

We reached the edge of the trail and walked through beautiful fields of Pyrethrum, the flowers of which are dried and sent to Chicago to make a potent insect repellent used on mosquito nets.

With the mountains in the background, you sort of expected Julie Andrews to come skipping across the meadow singing. Also found little shrooms, and a very hairy caterpillar.

Then it was into the most incredible bamboo forest. Bamboo is a gorilla's primary food and if they eat too much of it, it ferments in their stomachs and they become drunk. We were also joined by an armed guard to protect against buffalo.

We had a little nibble on the bamboo ourselves as we walked. After about an hour and a half, we bumped into the rangers who guard the gorillas. Then there was a loud crash and a baby gorilla fell out of a tree right ahead. Our guide shepherded us into their nest. It felt uncomfortably close at first - these guys are big, and curious. But we spread out and soon felt at home with the Hirwa clan.

Just as we were preparing to leave, one of the younger ones accidentally fell out of a tree onto the sleeping silverback, who sprang to all fours in a moment of surprise and ran towards us! It's one thing to be told 'don't run' in the face of an oncoming gorilla, and quite another to follow that order when it happens.

Had an absolutely wonderful time. Made it back down the mountain to base camp, where there was one last surprise. As we were waiting in the hut to receive our certificates, Maia looked up and said, 'Isn't that your friend?'

There on the ceiling was a painting with an inscription to the lovely Christiane.

We stopped off for pizza on the way home, and at the roadside market, where I bought sugar cane. Returned home absolutely exhausted but very happy. Rainbow in the garden just before I fell asleep.