Playing for Peace

Davide Martello was on a world tour with his custom-built electric piano when he made a spontaneous decision to play Istanbul's Taksim Square. His music became the soundtrack of the Turkish protests. He has since continued his tour with a new message: peace

By Julian Tompkin

Branded the "Piano Man of Taksim Square", Davide Martello went from complete obscurity to global celebrity overnight, with images of him serenading both protesters and police now emblematic of the conflict between the Turkish people and their government.

Back in his adopted home city of Berlin, this self-declared musical ambassador for peace is planning the next phase of his aural mission. When he calls, the voice on my mobile phone is animated. "Do you know how hard it is to find parking for an eight-meter vehicle? I'm sorry, but I'm going to be late."

Being a hero of Taksim Square doesn't buy you any influence over the merciless parking inspectors of Berlin. We cancel our planned meeting in a hip local beer garden and agree to meet on the side of the busy road where Davide Martello is scheduled to play one of his guerrilla gigs in half an hour.

A month ago, the world was largely oblivious to Davide Martello, the Italian-born, German-bred pianist from the idyllic lakeside city of Konstanz. But then he showed up on television sets the world over, serenading the protesters of Taksim Square in Istanbul while wearing a gas mask and helmet. And through the miasma of tear gas and strobing police lights, a legend was born.

Extended intermezzo: Davide Martello played for over twelve hours at a stretch on Taksim Square, entertaining protesters and bringing a brief period of calm to the highly tense atmosphere

Making history spontaneously

"I didn't really know what I was doing," he says of his decision to take an abrupt detour south from his otherwise scheduled world busking tour. "At the time, I was in Sofia, in Bulgaria, and I saw all these pictures on the TV and all this violence and I thought about what could happen if a piano were in the middle of the square."

The next day, he says, he travelled to the square to take a look. "I didn't want to play on the same day, I wanted to search for a hotel and get some rest. But I saw this Taksim Square sign on the road and I said, 'Come on, drive to Taksim and see what the situation is right now,'" recalls Martello. "And I drove to Taksim and I got my piano off my trailer and I just began to play."

Martello played, and then played some more. Before he knew it, he'd notched up three nights, including one marathon 13-hour session. The crowds adored him. Even the police were rumoured to have put down their batons to witness the peculiar sight of this 31-year old tinkling the ivories for peace and understanding in the middle of a virtual war zone.

But then, on the fourth night, the mood changed. Tear gas rained down once again and the glaring police lights were back. Martello tried to play on, but was overwhelmed by the gas and chaos and fled with the rest of the protesters.

When he returned to Taksim the next day, his beloved piano was gone, only to be reclaimed from the police later thanks to the assistance of the German and Italian embassies and the throng of TV stations that accompanied Martello to collect it. "It was like a party, and everyone was happy, so it was a pleasure for me to share the feelings with the people," he says. "I didn't think about [what effect my music could have on the situation] but after the second or third day I started to think, okay, music can change politics."

"Something that stops violence – something like art, music – I've never seen that before," the pianist continues. "The policemen took off their [helmets] and were sitting down and talking to the people. It was very peaceful."

A man on a mission: Martello makes no bones of the fact that he wants to play every capital city in the world. He had got as far as the Bulgarian capital of Sofia when he saw the protests on Taksim Square in Istanbul on television and decided to interrupt his world tour to take a little detour ...

The gift that launched everything

Martello's pursuit for piano-fuelled peace began somewhat more modestly a few years before. Realising he wasn't wholly satisfied with his career as a hairdresser in Konstanz, he opted to take one last shot at his real passion: music. He had been writing his own compositions since his teenage years. "I wrote a song for a girlfriend when I was 17 and she liked it, so that was it: I kept writing," he recalls.

Soon after that, he started applying to Germany's various music academies. Berlin's prestigious Hanns Eisler Academy of Music invited him to audition, but that plan was derailed when he received a life-changing phone call from a former client at his hair salon in Konstanz. The caller said he was willing to build Martello's dream piano: basically, the body of a grand piano kittled out with an electric keyboard and a face-melting subwoofer.

Martello says he purposely failed the entrance examination in Berlin and rushed home to begin planning his world tour. And thus began his new life as a troubadour. "The plan is to play every major city in the world," Martello says without even a whiff of jest. "Travel the world with my big piano and sell a few of my self-recorded CDs. That was what I was doing when I diverted to Istanbul."

What began earnestly on Berlin's Potsdamer Platz two years ago has since taken him to Tirana, Budapest, Mazar-i-Sharif, and far beyond. Martello typically rolls into his destination in his low-rider sports car, towing the trailer behind him, finds a suitable place to set up his hybrid grand piano and starts to play his atmospheric compositions for whoever will stop and pay him heed.

He has a map on the side of his trailer that charts his progress and a box of international parking tickets to prove he's the real deal. But Istanbul changed everything. He shows me the yellow helmet and gas mask he wore in Taksim Square, which he keeps in his car as a reminder of his experience.

Martello also goes by the name of Klavierkunst (piano art). He says "Art is the protagonist, surrounding us – the architecture, the landscape. This is the medium of the sounds and acoustics. The grand piano is just the tool for it. Therefore piano art."

Bittersweet symphony

I get the impression Martello is an accidental hero rather than a crafty self-promoter who saw Istanbul as his ticket to fame. He is genial and ebullient, an idealist who wears his heart as boldly on his sleeve as he does his hometown on the side of his trailer, where "Konstanz" is written in bold letters.

"To be honest, it's been pretty crazy since Istanbul," he says. "It wasn't my intention, this sort of publicity, but I am glad people are showing interest in me and my work. I just want to keep travelling. Next up is Paris, then London and Dublin." Martello has garnered over 15,000 likes on his Facebook page since Istanbul, and his guerrilla gigs have become more organised affairs.

After two shows in Hamburg – including one on Beatles Platz, which notched up considerable media attention in Germany – Martello alerts his Facebook followers to the Berlin show a few hours beforehand, and word quickly spreads that the Piano Man of Taksim is back in town.

We end our roadside chat and Martello removes his piano from the trailer. With the assistance of a few old friends and new fans he hauls it up to the centre of the Modersohn Bridge in the traditionally subversive district of Friedrichshain – a seemingly perfect location for tonight's show.

Around 70 people have already gathered; the buzz is palpable. Setting up the rack of CDs he sells for 15 euros a pop and tossing a few coins in his own tip bucket to kick things off, Martello finally sits down to play. But all that comes out is an eerie silence.

He is visibly perturbed as he fiddles with the knot of cables that are the lifeblood of this grand piano on steroids. He runs a hand through his floppy dark mane and curses under his breath. "This hasn't happened since Pristina," he moans. The gig is cancelled and, after tweeting the news, everyone goes home.

It appears this rolling revolution will need to be put on hold for a little while longer. Perhaps it is a defining paradox of the various uprisings that have swept through the Arab world over the past few years, in that all have been underwritten by technology. So what happens when you pull the plug? Thankfully, it seems, music still has the power to change the world – as long as you carry a spare battery for your face-melting subwoofer.

Julian Tompkin

© Deutsche Welle 2013

Editor: Kate Müser/DW and Aingeal Flanagan/