The upright piano once used by Elton John is white and weathered. Above the keys, in fading letters, a message has been scrawled by his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin: “Within this piano lays the ghost of a hundred songs. Take care of them, they love you.”
The instrument, on display at the Cantos Music Foundation, is almost close enough for visitors to reach out and test for lingering vibrations.
John’s piano, which he used to create the hit single Your Song, is among 200 instruments, some hundreds of years old, that have been donated to the foundation or purchased by it.
The organization aims to bring people face-to-face with the music and instruments in its collection, so they can see Supertramp’s synthesizer, test out a hurdy-gurdy or pluck and plunk their way through centuries of history.
In most cases, except for items such as John’s piano and some pieces so frail they need to be protected, people can sit down and try the instruments.
“A big part of our mandate is to have a living collection,” said Cantos spokesperson Camie Leard. “It’s not just going to see a bunch of instruments. You can put your hands on them, touch, feel, hear them.”
The six-year-old non-profit foundation, tucked away in a grey and red stone building near Calgary’s downtown, was created by the merger of the TriumphEnt Foundation, which focused on organs, and the Cantos Music Museum, which aimed to develop a collection of musical instruments.
Open the doors and you’re drawn into a series of rooms where you might meet a group of teenagers trading hip-hop rhymes, or a seven-year-old boy in a flipped up fedora, strumming a pint-sized guitar and trying his hand at singing the blues.
The venue holds live jam sessions, open to anyone who stops by and wants to step up to the mike.
At a recent Blue Monday night, Calgary’s Neon Blues Band and bassist Hans (The Thumb) Sahlen kicked off a set before encouraging others to take the stage.
Kids can see a show at Cantos and even take a turn themselves, Leard said. The experience helps teach them that music doesn’t come only in the slick clips on radio and TV.
“They don’t realize that Beyoncé has actually spent years and years perfecting her craft. That k-os and all these other guys, they didn’t just start from nothing, it’s not something you plug in a nickel and it comes up.”
Cantos is growing and has a contract to redevelop the King Eddie, a former blues bar and hotel in the city. It will move there around 2012, complete with an expanded collection focusing on Canadian music memorabilia.
“(The collection) is one of those things that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s unique in Canada,” said Leard.
If you go
Tours: Thursdays at 6 p.m., Sundays at 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m
Admission: $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and students.