Piano man Laurie Greenidge urges expansion of the art

Laurie Greenidge seated beside the piano in the St George’s Cathedral during the interview.

As I entered St George’s Cathedral the sweet notes of “You Raise Me Up” on piano greeted my ears and then I spotted him seated infront of the musical instrument, swaying gently to the sounds his deft fingers created.

Seventy-seven-year-old Laurie Greenidge, ‘the man from Bajan Quarters, Skeldon Corentyne, Berbice,’ is a piano tuner. Greenidge has been playing and tuning pianos for years. “Piano is my second name, I just love the piano it makes you so creative,” he said.

Greenidge’s deftness with the instrument and the fact that he has been “tuning and repairing them for years” becomes more interesting when one considers that he has been visually impaired for most of his life. He shared that while he was not born blind, he had weak optic nerves which were improperly managed and eventually led to his blindness. 

“But I never allowed it to keep me back, you know. Once I got a taste of piano, I just fell in love and that was it,” he told the Sunday Stabroek.

Every Sunday he can be found at Smith’s Congregational Church; he is the church’s pianist and also plays at weddings held there. And when he is not playing the piano he can be found tuning  and  repairing the instruments.

He travelled to the United Kingdom where he honed the skills he already had. And it was not just the piano (even though that was what he eventually fell in love with), but he also had lessons with the organ and saxophone taught to him by some of the finest musicians.

He agreed to have a sit down with this newspaper in the Cathedral building, where he had gone to meet up with a Bajan friend who was repairing the organ.

During the interview he shared that he was born Laurie Evan Rupus Greenidge in Bajan Quarters. The area was so named because it was predominantly occupied by persons from Barbados, who worked on the Skeldon Estate. He said his father, Laurie Greenidge, worked on the estate but his mother, Florie Bacchus, was a stay-at-home mom.

He lost his father while he was still a baby and his mother when he was just seven years old. He had three siblings, two brothers and a sister: Edmond who is now dead and Lennox and Janice.

He grew up, first with an aunt in Corentyne, then an uncle in New Amsterdam and later moved to Georgetown where he attended the Institute for the Blind which in the past was tasked with the responsibility of training the blind and finding meaningful employment for them.

It was at the institute that he learnt to make baskets, cane chairs, trays and other craft items and then he became employed by the institute which in turn sold those items.

“But you know that was then, now those things are obsolete and so there was no longer money to get from them,” he shared.

While he was more interested in craft at the institute he also became interested in music as well. He was taught to play the piano by Babsy Payne at Henry and D’Urban streets. He reminisced that he was also associated with the late Winston Wolford Drakes, who played the organ and was a member of the popular Sid and the Slickers band. His music also came from saxophonist Sony Thomas who also had a band. His passion for music and more so in the piano eventually saw him being awarded a scholarship to attend the London College of Furniture, a polytechnic in East End London, which had a department to train people to repair pianos. The scholarship came through Greenidge’s association with one Donald Jones, who was one of the few piano tuners in that time. It was he who recommended Greenidge to Lynette Dolphin, the then chair of the Department of Culture at the Ministry of Education.

With a slight smile on his face, Greenidge recalled that while in London he met his lifelong friend Michael Nedd, who was studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Nedd still lives in England but would visit Guyana from time to time.

Greenidge returned to Guyana two years later on completion of the course and he gained affiliated membership status to the American Piano Technician Guild and the Institute of Musical Instrument and Technology in London. Unfortunately, the affiliations could not continue because of the costs involved, but Greenidge said they had benefits such as being involved in annual seminars and conferences as well access to monthly journals and newsletters.

‘Wood ants’

While Greenidge loves the piano, he does not own one. He recalls that he had shipped one home from England, but it was destroyed some years later. “My friends, the wood ants got the best of it,” he said with a shake of the head.

He owns a keyboard, but Greenidge said it is not the same as owning a piano as while “keyboards have built-in music with the piano you can be more creative.”

He still tunes pianos, but with each passing year those jobs become fewer. Nowadays, he gets about three calls a month and charges about $10,000 depending on the magnitude of work needed.

“You see buying a piano now is all about money, it is very expensive and so more people are buying keyboards which is not the same,” Greenidge shared.

Apart from tuning pianos, Greenidge also repairs some and he said a lot of time the damage is done by mice.

“I don’t know how to put it over, but I love to play piano, it is like my middle name. And you know pianos are like individuals, there are no two pianos the same. Some have a sweeter touch, you go before them and you just enjoy playing,” he said with a small laugh.

Greenidge also likes the organ, but he quickly added, “I love piano bad.” His wish is to one day see “piano be big thing again” and he recommended that musicians be given more opportunity. He suggested maybe a radio programme like in the past which was called, ‘In Search of a Star’ and lamented the fact that the state-owned station no longer owns a piano as it did in the past.

“We need to encourage our young people to like piano music and we can hold little mini concerts and have people come and listen to some of the best,” he said.

His wife, Paulette Greenidge, who many may have known as Paulette Craig was a teacher; she died in 1998. He remembered that his wife was also a versatile piano player and she taught music.

He now shares his life with his current partner at their home in Diamond Housing Scheme, East Bank Demerara (EBD). The house was built by Food for the Poor.

Transportation from the EBD to the city can prove difficult at times, as Greenidge  pointed out that many bus operators are not keen on picking up older persons much less those who are blind.

“… The only way you can change this is by appealing to the heart, it is the heart of people that has to change,” he stated.

At home, Greenidge spends time in his garden. He said his plants are sometimes troubled by worms and other insects. He likes to listen to the radio and that is his form of relaxation or at other times he meets friends at Demico just to have a chat.

“Years ago, I used to go to the Botanical Gardens or the seawall, but you know time has changed now you have to be afraid,” he lamented.

“My experience both locally and overseas I consider beneficial both to myself and the country at large. My work in servicing pianos took me to a number of places in the country and I would have met many persons as well, some of whom I know up to day,” Greenidge said with a satisfied smile.

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