06/03/2014 06:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Keys to Peace: Davide Martello Gives to the Road

Ilgaz Erel

When Davide Martello arrived in Taksim Square in June 2013, Istanbul was thick with tear gas and blood, born from the butts and muzzles of riot police fighting to take back control of Gezi Park. As evening fell, the protesters prepped their barricades and police their water cannons in anticipation of another night of street-to-street fighting. Remarkably, none of it happened. Instead, a skinny, understated young man from Germany wheeled his piano into the square, struck a key, and instantly changed the tone. Again, music soothed the savage beast, if only for the evening.

2014-05-29-Martello2.jpgMartello's long road to Istanbul began one morning many years before, when the rough squeak and honk of a poorly trained saxophonist drew him to his bedroom window in Konstanz, Germany. "I jumped out of bed and looked out," he remembers. "Outside my window was a beautiful square, and the saxophone against the beautiful backdrop, coupled with the amazing acoustics made me stop in my tracks." It was then that he first conceived of building his own piano and traveling the world with it to play in beautiful and unexpected locations.

For a long time, however, it remained only a dream, sometimes sketched out in notebooks between clients at the hair dresser's salon, where he worked. Following the traditional route of music did not seem to bear fruit either. At an audition for Berlin's prestigious Hanns Eisler School of Music, he was told he needed to read music better. Finally saving the necessary funds himself, he purchased a baby grand, tore out the inside and replaced it an electric keyboard with a powerful subwoofer.

2014-05-29-Martello3.jpgThe new piano inspired a new kind of performance, which Martello calls "Klavierkunst" or "piano art." "I never wanted to be just a street musician. I wanted to have an aim, a purpose, a concept." To begin with, he made three rules for locations: There must be plenty of free room, no residences within 300 yards, at ground level and accessible by car, and contain some kind of special landscape or architecture.

The moving exhibition began in Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and has since brought Martello everywhere from New Orleans to Afghanistan. More remarkable than locations, however, have been the people. In one small village in Germany, when the police arrived to shut down his performance, the people held hands in a circle around the piano to stop them. Later in Stockholm, a couple got engaged in front of him. "I had an amazing show in Vilnius, Lithuania," Martello also recalls. "I began playing in front of a cathedral that is as large as a football stadium. When I started, it was empty, but by the time I finished the place was packed." Another time, in Piran, Slovenia, a group of children stopped skateboarding once he began playing. "Eventually they all sat down and were captivated by the music. It was as if the piano and music completely changed the situation and took them outside themselves."

2014-05-29-Martello4.jpg However, it was in Taksim Square where he discovered the disarming power of his music and how his piano could become something much more -- an instrument for peace. "I looked up from my piano while playing and saw police and protestors intermingling. No one was wearing riot gear. Everyone's gas masks, goggles, and hardhats were on the ground. For a moment it wasn't police and protestors, it was Turks talking to Turks."

The event inspired the Stop Killing Tour, launched in October of 2013, with the goal of playing in locations where tragedy has occurred or is occurring in hopes of paying respect to any lives lost, giving people the chance to reflect, and inspiring change for the better. "It brings awareness to the violence that occurs every day, and show that we each have our own ways to help promote peace." So far the tour has stopped in Trafalgar Square in London, The Navy Yard in Washington DC, the JFK Memorial in Dallas, and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Martello's contributions to the road have literally opened doors for him, most importantly in the necessities of life, which are not always easy to find. The Stop Killing Tour is not sponsored, nor does he earn any money, beyond sales of his CDs and donations. "I've never been let down by the people in a city. People have opened their homes to me; they have offered me food, drink and I've made some of my closest friends on the road."

2014-05-29-Martello5.jpg His journey also illuminates a less obvious distinction in how people travel. Although visitors contribute cash and capital to a destination, travel seems largely concerned with taking: taking a picture, taking a trip, taking a train, taking off in a plane, taking a hike, and hopefully taking notice. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this is how easy it is for a hotel maid to sweep away a traveler's existence after check out. Martello's focus is to give, and as a result, has earned him hundreds of welcomes that outstay his visit.

Giving to the road can be hard, Martello admits, but it's not so far from the reach of the average person with a bit of courage and openmindedness. "You can volunteer at a soup kitchen, attend a book club in the city, or even join a backgammon game. The idea is to cultivate meaningful relationships and give the gift of yourself to locals."

To learn more about Davide Martello and the Stop Killing Tour, visit

Lead photo by Ilgaz Erel, with permission. All others by Abigale James, with permission