Andre Bergeot is a flying doctor with a difference: His patients across vast areas of West Africa are pianos suffering from the ravages of desert heat, tropical steam and assorted pests.
He is the only professional piano tuner serving much of Francophone West Africa. His work takes him flying thousands of miles from the extreme Sahara Desert dryness of Mali and Niger to the sauna atmosphere of Ivory Coast.
The problems he faces among the few hundred pianos he serves are as varied as the climates in which they survive.
“I’ve never seen a snake inside a piano, but that could come,” Bergeot, whose wire-rimmed glasses and moustache give him a professorial look, said in a recent interview.
An amateur pilot, Bergeot used to fly light planes into the interior of Ivory Coast to keep customers in tune. Now he flies commercial jets from his home in Abidjan to the Sahel countries bordering the desert.
Extreme dryness and extreme humidity wreck pianos, and Bergeot sees a lot of both plus mice, mites, cockroaches and termites that nibble at wood, wires and felt.
“Some of the pianos,” he said sadly, “are beyond repair.”
Bergeot, 59, knows the region’s handful of Steinways, Pleyels and Yamahas intimately.
“I’m the only person doing this work here and I like the climate,” he said. “And people are nicer than they are in Europe.”
Bergeot, who was born in the Loire region of France, wanted to be a military pilot but couldn’t because he has weak eyes.
A family friend who was head of the French piano tuners’ union urged him to learn his present trade. Another friend said piano owners in Ivory Coast were desperate for someone to ease the pain of swelled wood and rusted strings.
Bergeot moved to Abidjan with his wife and family in 1966 for a two-year trial period and has been here ever since.
Influx of French
His arrival coincided with a post-independence influx of French working in Ivorian government and business, many of whom brought pianos.
He estimated that at the peak in the early 1980s there were about 400 pianos in Ivory Coast but the number has dwindled as many French have left.
Used pianos are rare and in high demand. Bergeot reckoned that one that was 50 years old, with sticking keys and mite-eaten felt was a steal for $1,000.
Although he plans to retire in a few years, Bergeot does not want West Africa’s pianos to fall flat when he leaves and is training an African apprentice to take over the business.
“There will always be French here,” he said. “So there will always be pianos.”