While almost every business activity one can think of, is suffering under COVID-19, there is one that
Nimal Perera inspects a piano
seems to be doing well, if not actually thriving.
Wholesale importer Nimal Perera says he imported 80 used pianos by prestigious makers such as Yamaha and Kawai between March and June, when almost all businesses remained closed and many faced bankruptcy, and had no trouble selling at least ten each month.
“Though one can’t call a piano an essential item,” he said while inspecting a 65-year-old Kawai in need of tuning and two new strings in Colombo, “the demand didn’t fall off due to the pandemic. My Japanese sellers carried out a stock clearing and some gave me 50% off. So I imported three container loads.”
Nimal Perera, who has been tuning, repairing and selling pianos for more than 25 years, says that this Kawai is relatively young in piano terms. To be considered old, a piano has to be over 100 years old, and many pianos between 100-150 years of age are still in use.
He travels daily from his base in Kochchikade, where he has his warehouse and workshop, to Colombo, the suburbs and other parts of the country with his assistants, delivering pianos or doing home visits for inspection, tuning and minor repairs. If important parts such as the piano’s action need an overhaul, they are dismantled and taken to his workshop.
Perera doesn’t import brand new Japanese pianos as one could cost over Rs. 2 million. Once refurbished, a second hand piano sells between Rs.100,000 and 400,000. Besides Yamaha and Kawai, he offers lesser known makes such as Tokai. Brand new Chinese and Korean pianos are a lot cheaper, one of the former selling at around Rs. 300,000.
But, though he started his career as an importer by importing several Chinese pianos in 1990, Nimal Perera doesn’t encourage his clients to buy them as the quality isn’t still up to international standards. “Most customers prefer to buy a refurbished Japanese piano for that reason,” he explained as watched his assistant Sarath removing all the accumulated dust from the Kawai’s interior with a vacuum cleaner.
It’s the smaller upright pianos which fall within this price range. A bigger grand piano would cost more. A 50-year-old Yamaha grand piano would cost Rs. 500,000.
In a banded Yamaha or Kawai, as he explained, the frame is made of die cast iron. This is characteristic of all Japanese pianos, but what sets these two makes apart is the superior quality of some parts. The action is German, and the strings too, are made in Germany. Despite their technical excellence, Japanese pianos suffer from wood rot due to the excessive humidity normally prevalent in this country.
Nimal Perera began his apprenticeship at the legendary Harmonics Co. in Slave Island. Contrary to popular belief, the company was destroyed during the July 1983 ethnic riots, though some of its properties were damaged. It went bankrupt as a flood of foreign musical instruments came in following the post-1977 liberalisation of the economy.
“The company made good quality pianos by assembling Barret & Robinson and Kemble products imported from England,” Nimal Perera recalled. “The mahogany body was made locally. This strong timber didn’t suffer from wood rot like in the new imports. But this fact was lost upon the public who loved the sophistication of Japanese pianos even though they were more expensive than Harmonics products. Sales went down by 75%, and the company went bankrupt in 1985.”
"Japanese pianos cost over Rs. 2 million. Once refurbished, a second hand one sells between Rs.100,000 and 400,000. Besides Yamaha and Kawai, he offers lesser-known makes such as Tokai. Brand new Chinese and Korean pianos are a lot cheaper, one of the former selling at around Rs. 300,000"
He was the company’s senior tuner when this happened, and struck out on his own. After importing several Chinese pianos in 1990, he got a break when he was able to buy seven German pianos from Singapore in 1995 during a stock clearing, paving the way for his successful business St. Anthony’s Musical Industries which has imported 500 container loads of used pianos since then.
Whether a majestic concert piano or a hard working, lovable upright, every piano has a number of similar parts inside. Removing the old Kawai upright piano’s action, he showed me the damage done by moths. “To repair that, I have to remove and take it back with me. For now, we are going to tune this piano to concert pitch and replace the broken strings. The action isn’t badly damaged and it can wait.”
A rat too, has caused some damage. But pianos are among the most durable of instruments. If the sound board (a large but thin piece of wood -- usually spruce -- glued together) isn’t damaged, it will continue to give pleasing tones throughout its lengthy life. It acts as an amplifier for the vibrations produced by the strings.
In addition, there is a harp, bridge, hammers, trap work, tuning pins and Celeste rail inside a piano, big or small. The interior of a piano can be as fascinating as the exterior.
The total cost for the Kawai came to Rs. 8000 – Rs.5,000 for the tuning, and three thousand to replace two broken strings. This may sound expensive, but Perera and his assistant had travelled from Kochchikade to the owner’s home in Colombo for the job, and they spent more than three hours doing it.
Buffed with wax and a cloth, the old Kawai looked elegant in that crowded living room. Looking at the model number embossed to the right of the frame, above the action, Nimal Perera said this was a good model. It has been given a new lease of life by a man who has dedicated his life to restoring fine instruments, and now it looked ready to play the finest music in the world, awaiting the right pair of hands.