Playing Piano for the President

Mostly I teach but sometimes I'm asked to perform. Back in 1989, I was living in Freetown, Sierra Leone with my husband, Michael, and baby.

Michael worked for the British Council and organised the Grand Opening of the refurbished British Council building with its sparkling new library, performance hall and offices. The President of Sierra Leone and former Head of the Army, Joseph Momoh, was invited to officiate at the opening ceremony. I was asked to play the piano as the guests arrived and continue until the President made his entrance and was seated on the stage.

The big day came and as usual the afternoon was hot and humid. The hall didn't run to air-conditioning and the ceiling fans were working flat out. The hall began to fill up with local dignitaries. I started to play. Sweat dripping. But what a beautiful piano to play on - a Steinway Grand, on loan from the University, and remarkably well in tune, considering the heat, the humidity and its bumpy trip across town.

I began to play - and play. The President was late. I worked my way through my repertoire of pieces from the Classics through to Elton John and the Beatles. After an hour, I was nearly down to pieces from Piano Time Grade 4.

Michael was getting flustered about the late start, the Goderich Community Gospel Choir were impatient to sing, and the guests were getting restless. At last, the roar of military vehicles, a silence throughout the hall, and the sound of heavy footsteps. Everyone stood up. The President had arrived. Should I play the Wedding March? Perhaps not.

Down through the hall he paced, and up onto the stage, and all that could be heard were the sweet notes of a Song for Guy - a proud moment for me but, in retrospect, probably not the best choice for a Grand Opening. The President sits. Around him stand his armed bodyguards. A silence descends.

Michael stands. As Master of Ceremonies his task is simple: a couple of opening speeches, introduce the choir for one song, welcome the President, and then back to the choir for two more numbers.

We've all had that awful black nightmare moment. It must have been the heat. It all started so well. A short welcome from Michael. The opening speeches. A lovely song from the choir. The President shuffles his feet, papers ruffle, and he readies to stand. But to the President's surprise Michael introduces the choir's second song. The President stares hard and looks at his bodyguards. The audience quietens. A tense moment. The choir breaks into song. Happily all ends well with Michael covering himself by dedicating the scond song to the President. Some uncertain connection. The audience clap, the atmosphere relaxes. All is well. The refreshments in the Hall were delighful, I'm told. I continued to play.

For the record, President Momoh was overthrown in a military coup three years later.

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