The Story of Themba
I fell heir to a piano in 1988. I’d known that piano as long as I can remember. It was my grandmother’s piano and as long as I could remember the piano was in terrible shape and couldn’t even hold a tuning. It was unplayable no matter what I tried as a very young man. Even the child’s song chopsticks sounded horrible because the piano was in such deplorable condition. But still, there was something beautifully mysterious about that old, grand piano.
When the old piano first arrived at my home I hoped that I could tune it and play it. It had the same old, cracked varnish; the result of my uncle Jack’s attempt to put a new coat of lacquer on it as a surprise Christmas present for my grandmother. After all it was her piano. Apparently even back then the piano had become unplayable and uncle Jack was just trying to refurbish it. But when he removed the sheet covering the piano on Christmas morning low and behold the new lacquer had cracked from stem to stern. I can only imagine the shock and disappointment my grandmother must’ve felt on that Christmas morning.
I tried my best to tune the grand old piano but it soon became apparent that the piano was not able to hold a tune, not even for a few minutes. So the piano sat in the corner of my living room for a few years and I was uncertain what to do or how to begin the process of refurbishing it back into playable condition. At the time I’d been doing sound reinforcement for a lot of concerts. My friend Hilton was in charge of the pianos that were rented to all the venues and through the years of working together I’d grown to respect Hilton’s ability as a piano tuner and his knowledge about pianos in general. I asked Hilton if he’d come over to my house and take a look at the grand old piano to which he agreed. Hilton did just that and one afternoon he made a brief inspection. With a tone of confidence he optimistically asked me, “John what do you plan to do with this piano.”
I replied, “I just wanna play it.”
Hilton just sort of rubbed his chin; I think he expected my answer. He then said, “I’ll tell you what John, if you just want to play it why don’t you let me send it back to the manufacturer. They’ll be able to totally refurbish this piano and if you’ll let me rent it for three years I’ll get what I need out of it and I’ll just give it back to you at no cost.”
Of course and in a bit of disbelief I agreed to Hilton’s amazing offer. Much to my surprise about two weeks later Hilton and his crew of piano movers showed up at my house to load that old piano in his truck. My piano was shipped back to the manufacturer just as he’d told me weeks before. Hilton called me periodically and asked me questions about the piano and gave me updates as to the progress of its refurbishing. At one point he asked, “The manufacturer would like to know what kind of finish you’d like on your piano? You can have any kind of finish you want. Black enamel, natural wood, white even if you want.” I recalled the story that I’d been told about uncle Jack’s attempt to relacquer the piano that ended in such a disaster and I thought it would be most appropriate to return the grand old piano back to its original wood tone. Hilton was very matter-of-fact about it and said, “then that’s what you’ll get.”
The summer concert season began and my refurbished piano showed up on the stage. It was my first chance to take a glimpse of it. In a word I was speechless. The folks at the manufacturer had done an absolutely incredible job putting that old piano that was originally manufactured in the year 1899 back into brand new condition. And just as Hilton had said, he rented that piano at those concerts and others for three years. Many famous jazz pianist played that piano. And after each concert Hilton would have them each sign the piano with a black indelible marker right on the harp. The instrument became a masterpiece.
The final month of the three-year rental period had come due. With anxious hope I waited for Hilton’s call to tell me that my piano would be delivered back to my house. And one afternoon at work I received a call from Hilton, but his voice was low. His voice was very, very low.
“John I’ve got some really bad news. You’re not gonna believe this. We accidentally dropped your piano.”
”Dropped it? What do you mean you dropped it? “I asked.
“Well at our last show we were getting ready to move the piano back into the truck. I heard a loud noise and looked over and your piano had fallen over. The plate is cracked,” he explained.
“What do you mean the plate is cracked? You mean the metal harp that holds all the strings? “I asked him. “Where is it cracked? Is it fixable? “
“It cracked right at the bridge member in the treble. I think it might be able to be welded,” he said.
Now mind you that I was a welder apprentice when I was younger and had studied in depth proper welding techniques. I knew that the plate of the piano was cast-iron. I also knew that welding it back would not be successful. I knew that there was enough tension on that harp with all those piano strings that it was the equivalent of pulling a diesel locomotive. It was then that Hilton offered a suggestion of hope. “Well not to worry John. The piano is fully insured and so what I think we should do is send it back to the manufacturer for an appraisal and then let’s just see how that comes out. “ Well of course I was in no position to barter nor negotiate anything. Besides Hilton had lived up to his word thus far and there was not a moment’s doubt. I had heard many famous jazz pianist play that instrument and had great hope that their inspiration would rub off on me. But in my disappointment I realized I had no choice but to resign to the situation and again be patient.
A few months went by and Hilton called to tell me that the manufacturer had assessed the piano and they had an offer. According to Hilton if I was in no big rush to get my piano back that the manufacturer would wait until there was a production lull of new pianos, at which time they would be able to give my broken piano the precise attention that it needed. They planned to put a brand new harp in my piano but that it would take a while for it all to work out. That was all fine by me in as much as there was nothing that I could do about it anyway. Believe you me, it was perhaps the greatest test of my patience of my entire life but even at that point I held fast to my hope that someday I could play that wonderful piano.
THREE LONG YEARS WENT BY with no word from Hilton about the status of my piano. I’d not only given up hope that I’d never see my piano again but I kind of had almost forgotten about it entirely. Then one day I got a call at work. It was Hilton. But this time the tone of his voice was bright and brief.
“Hey John guess what I have right here at the studio? I’ve got your piano! It’s right here. It came back today and we’re going to deliver it to your house this afternoon! Are you gonna be around at about 3 o’clock?”
You can imagine the flood of joy and happiness that overcame me. But nothing can describe how I felt when the piano finally arrived. We raised the hood and the key cover to inspect what a miraculous masterpiece of craftsmanship the manufacturer had reproduced for me. The new harp, the new strings, the shiny new pins seated into the brand new pin block, the gorgeous, lacquered finish; she shined like brand new. Hilton told me that he was going to have his friend Dave the local piano tuner and amazing jazz pianist come tune the piano twice over a month and that that should be all that was necessary. Dave came a few days later and tuned my piano but also taught me how to tune it myself. A month later he came back and gave my piano a final professional tuning. After his tuning Dave gave me a concert and jazz piano lesson. It was the first and last jazz piano lesson I had ever gotten in my entire life.
Twenty years went by. I played the piano (or should I say my piano played me) every day. I’ve often thought about my grandmother while sitting at the piano wondering how happy it would make her to know that her piano was again in perfect playing condition. After dinner one evening I made the commitment to tune the piano. I’d gotten pretty good at it and always followed Dave’s tips. I often found myself playing unusual intervals while tuning, to kind of test the harmonics across the entire key bed. I’ve learned that while tuning and making those tests, some of the greatest inspirations would come. I’d jot them down quickly and then resume my tuning, staying focused on it until complete. While taking a short break from the tuning to rest my ears, I put my hands on the keys. I just felt them. I noticed how beautiful they were. It was an unforgettable moment now looking back on it. Because for the first time in the decades that I had come to know that piano, that evening in the calm and quiet of that night I realized for the very first time that the keys of my piano we’re made of genuine elephant ivory. As I ran my fingers gently across the keys admiring their beauty I was overcome with the sorrow of realizing for the very first time that a great African elephant had been slaughtered in the 1890s solely for the purpose of taking it’s ivory for the manufacture of my piano. In that moment on that night my sorrow turned to grief. I wept, and I wept more. Also, I realized that the piano had been left neglected, untouched, unloved and in a state of total disrepair for perhaps 50 years or more. It was overwhelming. It seemed such a senseless tragedy. I settled myself and dried my tears and realized that I’d been hit with a wave of inspiration in my thoughts and in my soul. I felt an instantaneous connection to the spirit of the great animal, the elephant who in that moment I realized must be remembered. I made a promise to myself that I would write a song to remember the great elephant who had found rebirth in a way to help me learn what music is really all about.
A week later my brother and bassist Doug came to my house to rehearse some music for some coming shows. Our rehearsal was fine and Doug is an amazing musician. More so, Doug was very attentive and conscious to the greatest elements of what music is all about and so I took a moment to explain to Doug the revelation I’d had the week before while tuning. I asked Doug if he’d help me compose a song to remember and commemorate the life of the great elephant that was slaughtered for its ivory. It didn’t surprise me in the least that Doug immediately agreed. We presented the idea and concept at our next full rehearsal to Jeff and Paul of our band nanama. For no known reason we decided to name the great elephant Themba. We got right to work on our idea and came out with a product in draft, a song entitled, “For Themba.” Presently the song is a jazz fusion quartet instrumental that’s been completed with the selfless artistry and collaboration of some truly remarkable musicians and friends from around the world, Nanama Global. We all share the same interest, motivation and beat in attempts to portray the life of a great bull elephant who with the pride and in honor of all his ancestors fell to Earth at gunpoint while trying to protect his family; his family that he loved more than anything in the whole universe. It is our hope that the song and the true story of Themba will serve to help protect our world’s elephants.