To Havana on a string


Una Corda is an Irish-Cuban project that helps train and equip piano-tuners and sends parts to its Havana workshop so that old pianos can be restored and released to schools of music – and many Irish people have volunteered as couriers, writes ROSITA BOLAND.

WHEN YOU think of Cuba, several obvious things rush to mind right away. Castro. Communism. Trade sanctions. Cigars. Crumbling buildings. Havana. Che Guevara. The Malecón. And, of course, music. You might never have visited the famous small island beside Haiti, but to listen to Cuban music is to have a cultural experience of a country where music is both highly valued and utterly commonplace. You could no more stop the Cuban people making music than you could expect birds to stop singing.

However, Cubans face particular technical challenges that citizens of most other countries do not. Decades of US trade sanctions has resulted in what could be called “a make-do society”, where things that break are either repaired or stay broken. Replacement is not often an option. Thus it is with the much-used pianos of Havana. Parts wear out. Pianos become unusable. Opportunities for music-making fade away.

The term Una Corda is a musical direction for the depression of a soft pedal on the piano. It’s literal meaning is “one string”. Una Corda is also the name of a non-profit organisation run by volunteers from Ireland’s music community, that works to train and equip Cuban piano-tuners. They are now in the final stages of being awarded charitable status as a cultural and educational exchange project.

The organisation has three strands to it: sending a small number of piano-tuners to Cuba to tune pianos and train people locally; to help restore Havana’s National Workshop of Instrument Repair; and to encourage Irish people travelling to Cuba on holidays to carry piano parts with them, which Una Corda supplies. You don’t have to have any particular interest in music to volunteer to take a bag of parts, simply have room in your rucksack or suitcase.

CATHERINE BRUTON, from Galway, travelled to Cuba last month. Like many of the other 263 Irish people who have volunteered since December 2007 to carry out bags of parts, she found out about the project when she saw a flier in the Cuban Embassy while applying for her tourist visa. (The project has the co-operation of both the Cuban embassy in Dublin and the ministry of culture in Cuba.) She took with her a bag of felt and nails. “I don’t think you can separate Cuba from music. Music is central to the lives of Cubans,” she says. “The people there don’t have many material things, so everything is celebrated through music. People don’t go out and buy a new car to celebrate, for instance, since there aren’t new cars to buy.”

It was Bruton’s fourth trip. “One of the reasons I keep going back to Cuba is because of the music,” she explains. “It’s unique. A lot of the music is untouched and pure, because it hasn’t had the same levels of influence. I get the impression it’s very authentic to the roots of what it’s always been.”

There was nobody in except a receptionist when Bruton dropped off her bag at the National Workshop of Instrument Repair, where Una Corda is based in Havana. But when Joe and Carmel Carrick from Clondalkin turned up there in April with nine kilos of piano wire, hammers, and “a load of tiny nuts and bolts that must hold the guts of the piano together”, they got a tour of the place.

“When you went in, there was an Irish flag on one side and the Cuban flag on the other side. It’s very run-down, like an old warehouse. Very dusty, with a wooden floor and carcasses of pianos everywhere. There were maybe 15 pianos, everything from uprights to baby grands. We handed over the packages and they started opening them up there and then. One guy started shouting down to the back of the workshop to come and look at what was in the packages, so it must have been something he needed.”

It was the Carrick’s second trip to Cuba, but the first time bringing piano parts. “It was no trouble to us to take the extra stuff in our cases. It made the holiday more of an adventure,” he says enthusiastically.

Their role as couriers also gave the Carricks the unexpected opportunity to meet Che Guevara’s daughter, Aleida. They were visiting the Havana museum that had once been home to the man with the most famous beret in the world, and got chatting to the curator about the Una Corda project and how they had just dropped off their bags of piano supplies. They showed her photographs they had taken in the workshop. It transpired that Guevara, who lives in Cuba and is a big supporter of Una Corda, was actually on the premises. The curator went to tell her, and Guevara came out to thank them in person for being involved in the project. “She had red hair and the odd freckle on her face,” Joe Carrick reports. “She could have passed off as Irish.”

“I ENDED UP driving to Dublin to collect the materials, as it was the only way it was going to work,” says Michael Scanlon, who lives in Athea, Co Limerick. “I wanted to do something special for Cuba, and this was something practical I could participate in. I ended up taking four kilos. They had felt in them for repairing hammers, and metal pins, and what looked like straps. It just meant I couldn’t pack so many clothes. You could say my outfits for the holiday were limited, but I didn’t mind.”

Scanlon, like the others, also personally delivered the bags of parts to the workshop. “For me, one of the highlights of my trip was that experience. When you think about this country, Ireland, we’ve got so used to having everything we need. It was something else to see the excitement and joy and appreciation of the people when I delivered the parts.

The pianos that are being repaired and restored by the parts Una Corda is sending to Cuba belong to Havana’s music schools. Up to 20 of them are in the workshop at any one time. Word has gone out across Havana, and there are many more pianos in the queue that are in need of restoration. The workshop itself is to be restored over time with money raised in Ireland. In February this year, when the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, visited Cuba, he went to the Havana workshop and spoke about how the Una Corda project was “a good example of the cultural bonds existing between the two nations, which can be developed even more, particularly in the sphere of music”.

The money it costs to buy the piano parts has been raised almost exclusively through benefit concerts organised by Una Corda. There will be two further fund-raising concerts this month, when the famous Cuban jazz pianist, Chucho Valdés, plays venues at Cork and Dublin. Valdés has won five Grammy awards, and is himself the son of a celebrated jazz painist, Bebo Valdés. So even if you have no plans to visit Cuba yourself, but are a fan of that country’s distinctive music and want to send hammers, nails, and parts to help mend their pianos, this is your chance.

Chucho Valdés plays a solo concert at the Cork School of Music on July 20th, and with a full band, at Vicar Street on July 21st. 88 Strings Attached, a short documentary about Una Corda screens as part of the Galway Film Fleadh. See