Something of value: Seattle Piano Gallery makes beautiful music in another hemisphere

"Pianos and work are both badly needed in Kenya," says Arnie Tucker, owner of Seattle Piano Gallery. The unemployment rate in Kenya is about 50 percent, so it is obvious that work is needed. But pianos? Muriembe drums and obokano lyres, perhaps, but not pianos.

In fact, an estimated 78 percent of Kenyans are now Christian, and Christian churches need pianos. Also, Western classical music is popular in Kenya. With a population of about 3 million, the capital city Nairobi is huge, "and every modern country in the world has an enclave there," says Kenn Wildes, co-owner and registered piano technician at Seattle Piano Gallery.

Wildes should know; he lived there for almost five years. He went to Nairobi in 1991 to "run with the Ken-yans." With hopes of qualifying for the Olympics, he trained with the world's fastest long-distance runners. He lived in a maisonette ("little house") and, to support himself, restored pianos.

Wildes became a piano technician back in 1986 when he lived in Boulder, Colo. Primarily self-taught, he bought the tools of the profession, joined the Piano Technicians Guild, attended its monthly meetings and scoured 20 years' worth of trade journals.

Two years after arriving in Kenya, he started his own piano restoration business there. Soon he met Muturi Patrick Muraya. "I knew instantly that Patrick was a good guy," says Wildes. "I hired and trained him." In gratitude to Wildes for raising him out of poverty, Muraya named one of his four children Byron, Wilde's middle name.

Unfortunately, Wilde's Olympic dreams were dashed when he was hit by a car. He returned to the United States, leaving Muraya to take over the business and change its name to Patrick Piano Services. Wildes moved to Seattle and was hired as a piano tuner at a piano showroom downtown where Tucker worked as a sales- man. That showroom sells mostly new pianos, but, says Tucker, "I noticed that a vast majority of customers wanted to buy used pianos."

Tucker enjoys refinishing the outside of a piano, known as its case. "Most of a piano's value is based on what it looks like," he says. At one point he had five pianos in his living room at home in various stages of refinishing.

Wildes also followed his passion on the side, collecting up to nine pianos in his garage and restoring their insides. After collaborating for several years, the two men, who had become good friends, decided to open a business together. Seattle Piano Gallery, which sells primarily used and fully restored pianos, opened its doors in September 2002.

Tucker is the majority owner of the business and salesman. He spends most of his time in the showroom, where light floods through tall windows onto an array of shiny grand pianos, lids raised like uniform peaks.

Wildes focuses his efforts on restoration. He and several employees work in the shop downstairs among a fascinating collection of instruments in various stages of repair.

Of course Wildes told Tucker about his years in Kenya, and about Patrick Piano Service. Muraya's business was doing well, employing 10 to 12 people, raising them out of poverty as he himself had been raised. But he needed more pianos.

In 2003, a year after the gallery's founding, and six years after Wildes returned from Kenya, he and Tucker placed a small advertisement in the paper asking for donations of old pianos, garnered 20 and shipped them to Kenya. It's no longer necessary to place an ad; word-of-mouth and a link on their Web site now suffice.

To date they have shipped 110 pianos to Patrick Piano Services: two 20-foot containers, and two 40-foot containers. In February they will ship another 38 pianos in a 40-foot container.

Seattle Piano Gallery pays the cost of shipping - about $3,500 for a 20-foot container and $4,300 for a 40-foot container. They also pay for moving the pianos out of people's homes. "This can be challenging sometimes," says Tucker. "Some pianos have been gathering dust in the corner of someone's basement for a long time."

Up to now, Muraya has paid for costs incurred in Kenya only, but he will help pay to ship the container in February as he can better afford to do so now.

Pianos are shipped with cardboard shims between them. That's not as much care as would be taken with new pianos, because the instruments will be totally rebuilt at the other end. Grand pianos actually take up less room in a container than do upright pianos because they are shipped on their sides (legs removed).

Muraya hires extra help when a shipment arrives in Kenya and needs to be unloaded. The rest of the time his employees refinish piano cases. "Patrick pays them generously," says Wildes, "a dollar or two a day." Each piano sent to Kenya provides restoration work and an income that has a ripple effect, helping many families improve their standard of living. "Many of them were goatherds before," says Tucker.

Muraya remains the only technician, rebuilding the piano's belly and action. Wildes explains that there are three parts of a piano: the case, or outside; the belly, including non-moving parts such as the sound board, pin block, bridges, strings and harp; and the action, including moving parts such as the keys and hammers.

The life cycle of a piano can be lengthened indefinitely by replacing parts, with the rare exception of the harp, a cast-iron plate. "If the harp cracks," says Wildes, "the piano's toast."

Muraya is able to sell refurbished pianos in Kenya for almost as much as he would in the U.S. He sells them to wealthy foreigners and Kenyans alike, and Christian churches.

If you have an old piano that needs repair or is no longer being used, consider donating it to Seattle Piano Gallery for the Kenya Project. If your piano is suitable, they'll pay all moving and storage expenses. They repair and sell some of the donated pianos in their own shop to fund shipping expenses.

This project is a private effort of friends helping friends, not an established charitable organization. Piano donations are not tax deductible, but Seattle Piano Gallery provides a receipt and disclaimer indicating that most donated pianos have a market value of $500 or less.

Reaping a tax deduction is not the goal. The goal is to revitalize old pianos, and people's lives. Tucker and Wildes are now percolating the idea of sending pianos to New Orleans as well.

For more information, call Seattle Piano Gallery at 272-7101, log on to or visit the showroom at 2230 Eighth Ave.

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