Ten pianos remain dotted around Nicosia until today to be played by the public. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who has followed the musical project around Europe and the US and lives to bring people together through music
A man goes to the doctor with a sprained wrist, and the doctor puts it in a splint. “After it’s healed, will I be able to play the piano?” asks the man. Yes of course, replies the doctor. “That’s funny,” says the man. “I couldn’t before.”
It’s an old joke – but it seems quite appropriate, since I have a sprained wrist when I talk to Fabio Tedde in the coffee shop of the Holiday Inn in Nicosia (the result of an unlucky spill while on holiday) while Fabio is a piano player, indeed a musician and composer. My wrist isn’t really relevant – except insofar as I can’t twist the top off my bottle of water, and he has to do it for me – but his piano playing is extremely relevant. Not only does he play, but he’s also involved with ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’, a street-piano project that’s been in Nicosia for the past 10 days after having installed 1,300 pianos in 45 cities across the globe.
Then again, saying that Fabio is ‘involved’ with ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ may be a bit misleading. He’s not a spokesman for the project, nor employed in any official or unofficial capacity, nor did he come up with the idea (it’s the brainchild of a UK artist named Luke Jerram). The concept behind ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ is straightforward: a number of pianos are installed in public places – parks, squares, markets, bus shelters – in a given city, and those pianos are there to be played by whoever wants to play them, from professionals to random passers-by. “Who plays them and how long they remain on the streets is up to each community,” explains the official website, rather pompously adding: “By creating a place of exchange ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ invites the public to engage with, activate and take ownership of their urban environment.”
Fabio doesn’t install the street pianos. He doesn’t choose the cities where they travel, or their locations within those cities. All he does – and all he’s been doing since 2009, when he happened to hear about the project – is follow them. He’s played 626 of the 1,300 pianos installed under Jerram’s aegis, in various locations all over Europe and the US. He’s been to LA, Boston, Paris (twice), Geneva (three times), Pecs in Hungary, Tilburg in Holland, Glasgow, Belfast, Munich (twice), Cambridge, Blackburn and more. He does all this at his own expense, without any prior arrangement with the organisers. He’s met Jerram a few times, but doesn’t really know him; “I think he likes what I do.”
Does he wonder why you’re doing it?
“I really don’t know if he understands why I’m doing it.” A pause: “I just look to bring people together. I just love the idea. There’s no money involved, I put my money to travel everywhere. And I just like this concept of [the pianos] being on the street, free, for everyone to enjoy. It’s an amazing concept.”
Why follow them around, though?
“It’s just to share the message. To bring people together through music, it’s very simple.”
Don’t the pianos do that anyway, though? It’s not like he has to be there.
“No, but I’m very good to bring people together,” he explains in his slightly fractured English. “Because I talk to people. When I start playing I talk to people, I give my card. When I meet people they like what I do, they follow me. And then I create this… vibe.” He laughs, a high-pitched chortle that holds nothing back.
Fabio doesn’t hold back in general. He smiles and laughs a lot, his manner easy and gregarious. He’s slim and lithe, his long hair tied in a ponytail; he’s 37, but looks a lot younger. It’s easy to imagine him chatting as he plays a street piano, breaking the ice, getting some shy amateur musician to take his turn at the piano, maybe sitting down to jam with him. Munich was the best of ‘his’ cities, he says at one point; in Munich he’s almost a celebrity, “people call me by name on the street” (he’s done interviews with most of the big papers there) – and one of the “amazing people” he met in Munich was an 11-year-old boy called Martin Gradener, a musical prodigy who followed him around for three days, going from piano to piano. You can see Martin on one of Fabio’s YouTube videos, playing Chopin’s ‘Nocturne No. 2’ with great feeling (the video is Fabio’s most popular, with over 100,000 views) – but the real question is what kind of parents would place their 11-year-old child in the care of a stranger for three days. It seems incredible – but then you meet Fabio, and it’s clear how that wouldn’t even be an issue. He’s unthreatening.
He has to be, if only for practical reasons. He saves up for airline tickets (he’s been based in London for the past 14 years) but mostly he’s dependent, like Blanche DuBois, on the kindness of strangers. He looks for free lodging and ‘couch-surfs’, sleeping in the homes of people he finds through the internet; he spent 21 days in Boston and “I found this lady, she gave me a house for 21 days!”. We may meet at the Holiday Inn, but he’s certainly not staying here (if all else fails, he’ll spring for a cheap B&B). “I never go to hotels. Never,” he insists, adding: “You don’t learn from hotels”.
Hoping for the kindness of strangers is how he makes his living in London too – because Fabio works primarily as a street musician, though he also plays piano in hotels and conference centres. Some would say he lives hand-to-mouth, but that’s how he likes it. “I follow my fingerprint,” he tells me, meaning that he follows his inner life – which is unique for everyone, like a fingerprint. “Whatever I feel, I do.”
The same goes for his music, which is almost entirely improvised. “I don’t follow any rules. What I feel at the moment, I play.” Fabio can’t read music; he’s completely self-taught, having first tapped at piano keys as a five-year-old in his childhood home. That was in Sardinia, that large and sleepy Mediterranean island – and he wasn’t even in the capital Cagliari but up on the north-west coast, in a village of 500 people where he spent the first two decades of his life (prior to living in a city of eight million and roaming the world for the next two decades). What did he do there, exactly? Well, he made wine. He made olive oil. He spent time outdoors. He owned three horses. “I never think I would be living from music, I never think that,” he recalls earnestly. “It all happened by mistake.”
It doesn’t sound like anything ‘happened’, per se. He won a trip to Egypt, playing a scratch-card in a newspaper while waiting his turn at the local barbershop. On the way back from Egypt, he was very impressed by a fellow Italian who spoke English (Fabio didn’t speak a word of it). He thought he should go to London to learn English. He’d just broken up with his girlfriend of three years. It all came together – on a whim, by the sound of it. “My father said to me: ‘You’ll be back in 15 days’. I said: ‘I don’t think so’.” Once in London, he worked as a pizza chef – then, one Friday night, saw a group of drummers busking in Leicester Square. He loved the sound, so he bought a drum and joined them. He quit his job as pizza chef and spent three months in West Africa – Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso – learning to play local instruments like the djembe and kora, playing only drums for a few years before going back to the piano. Street music became his life. He’s had a licence to play in the London Underground since 2003.
This is not an organised life; it’s not supposed to be. Some may wonder if Fabio Tedde is even worthy of a profile. He’s not famous, after all (except in Munich). He hasn’t done all that much with his 37 years. Yet he does seem to stand for something – a certain freedom, an absence of fear. “Right now, I don’t think much about what I’m gonna be doing when I’m 60 or 70,” he tells me. “I’ve stopped thinking of this. I’ve stopped thinking of owning a car, or owning a house. Right now, I feel like the world is one for me.” What he hates above all (he says) is having to show his passport – because he hates the idea of borders, a sign of the world not being ‘one’.
He doesn’t just follow pianos, he also tries to learn about the people in each city he passes through. Paris, he says, was depressing, full of sad people, “you read in the face that they’re not happy”. Munich, of course, was great, they really appreciate music there. He’s just spent two days walking around Nicosia, and likes it (though he does wonder why everybody drives instead of walking). He’s been taking photos of street cats – photography is his other big passion – and bonded with a lady who feeds them, and they chatted for about two hours.
Yet there may be a downside to all this compulsive gregariousness. Does he have friends? “I have friends all over the world,” he replies. No, but real friends? “I like to be with people all the time – like, new people. I don’t usually see the same people all the time. I keep changing, I travel all the time. I have a few friends from when I was young, we’re still in touch every now and then,” he adds with a shrug – but mostly “I just follow my mission. Sometimes we sit with my friends, but I’m always busy. I’m playing all the time.”
Similarly, though he might go for coffee with musicians he meets through ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’, “usually I prefer to be with the piano all the time. Until they close the piano, I’m there!”. I’m a bit stunned to hear that he’s been married for the past 10 years, though he and his wife are now divorcing. She – a psychologist from West Africa – had no interest in following him on his various travels, reports Fabio sadly, so his life ended up taking precedence over his marriage. Is it possible he’ll marry again someday? Maybe, he replies dubiously, but right now he just wants to be “totally free”. If you’re not free, “then you start to be fake,” he adds firmly – and being fake is exactly what his “mission” deplores. That’s why the street is best, because “whatever happens is real” – not like a concert hall, where people might be snoozing or sitting against their will.
‘Just how good are you?’ I ask, somewhat indiscreetly. Fabio hesitates: “I don’t know how to classificate myself as a musician,” he replies in another burst of Italian English. “I just do what I love, and people love what I do”. His music – based on a quick YouTube listen – seems to be moody, dreamy, easy on the ears; his CDs are titled ‘Dream With Me’ and ‘A Place for Everyone’ (which is “what I see when I close my eyes,” he adds with a laugh). “There is no technique, there is nothing technical”. Music, for him, is pure emotion, a language, a way of communicating.
“I use my music for healing people. Many people use my music for therapy, for meditation, for relaxing,” explains Fabio Tedde. “One of my fans, she used my music when she was giving birth!” He can’t spend a day without music, he says – despite having spent all those years making wine and riding horses in Sardinia – “I have to play because it releases me from all my thinking. I think all the time, I don’t sleep much. I think [about] all the world issues, all these problems. Music is the only thing that can relax me”.
Maybe following pianos around the world is itself a kind of therapy, I muse as we say goodbye and he heads off to one of the 10 pianos scattered around Nicosia. My wrist still hurts – but, after talking to Fabio for an hour, it almost feels like I could sit down beside him and play the piano myself. That’s funny, I couldn’t before.