Piano to Zanskar

Reviewed by Pam Newns

Our first film after lockdown 2, 'Piano to Zanskar' was a real treat. Desmond 'Gentle' O'Keeffe, an eccentric piano tuner doesn't want to settle for 'lemon drizzle and deckchairs' in retirement but embarks on a mission - he sets out from his workshop in Camden Lock to deliver a 100-year-old piano to a remote village school in the Himalayan region of Zanskar. This is no mean feat, involving a treacherous trek up and down mountains and along dust tracks for two days to Lingshed, which is 14,000 feet above sea level. Desmond is accompanied by two lively younger helpers – Anna, a singer and keen environmentalist, and Harald, a Swedish former musician. The trio enlist a team of local Sherpas to help with the last, most hazardous part of the 'move'.

The journey is fraught with tension; the yaks are smaller than expected so cannot transport the heavy iron frame and other piano parts, the terrain is extremely steep and perilous for carrying them by hand, the last day of the journey is a real test of stamina and Desmond suffers from exhaustion, and the strings are mangled to the point where is it uncertain if the piano will ever sound a note. However, it is also joyous, celebrating the beauty of the stunning mountain scenery, the openness of the villagers and the characters of the participants, including the unlikely talent of Harald to motivate the Sherpas with Viking songs.

Music is a motivating factor for the whole endeavour and permeates the film throughout. Ernst Reijsenger's soundtrack is wonderful and we are immersed in the sights and sounds of the Himalayan journey, including impromptu singing and dancing. It seems almost karmic that, on their arrival at the Buddhist primary school, the team encounter a German concert pianist who had just arrived herself. When she plays Beethoven’s 'Fur Elise' on the newly reconstructed piano it is generally agreed the sound is beautiful. And one of the village elders tries his hand at accompanying her. The local children seem to thoroughly enjoy the singing and movement session which Anna leads, as well as appreciating the strange new piano.

Piano to Zanskar recounts an epic journey through some majestic scenery with grace and humour. It also touches upon much larger themes of personal fulfilment, spirituality and the development of a culture. Both entertaining and providing food for thought.