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FRANCESCO TASKAYALI: The Migrants’ Minstrel

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World renowned pianist Francesco Taskayali (in red with face mask) plays Chopin in the Nakhas Thunder to entertain quarantined migrants on repurposed cruise ships off the Mediterranean Sea. His volunteer work is with the Red Cross. | Screenshot from The Outlaw Ocean Project // Raphaela Morais

Sometimes beauty hides in dark corners. For Francesco Taskayali that beauty was to be found on detention ships anchored in the Mediterranean Sea, miles off the coast of Italy where desperate migrants are being held in a grim and watery purgatory.

Last year, the world renowned pianist volunteered with the Red Cross to work on several of the eight repurposed cruise ships that the Italian government has chartered to quarantine migrants offshore.

Housing over 10,000 migrants, these floating holding pens are generally out of reach to lawyers, advocates, doctors, and journalists. So, Taskayali hoped to witness the conditions and treatment for himself. While onboard two ships — the Allegra and the Suprema — Taskayali discovered dusty pianos packed away in storage. After getting permission from the captains to move them outside and on deck, Taskayali began playing daily concerts for the migrants on the ships’ decks.

Francesco Taskayali with the quarantined migrants onboard a repurposed cruise ship off the Mediterranean Sea. There are about eight repurposed cruise ships and they serve as holding areas for migrants to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. | The Outlaw Ocean Project | Raphaela Morais

“There is a certain intimacy you get when you play for people who see themselves as invisible,” Taskayali said, adding he also wanted the chance to play for the migrants in the hope of getting creative inspiration from them and their journeys while also offering them a small sense of reprieve after a brutal journey. The concerts then became a daily ritual as crowds gathered, some dancing, some crying, many simply sitting listening nearby. Among the most popular songs he played was “Bella Ciao”, the famous 19th-century protest anthem that had just become a popular song in Tunisia thanks to a remix titled “Habibi Ciao”.

When he wasn’t playing concerts, Taskayali gave out meals and provided migrants with toiletries and cell-phone chargers. He handed out ointment for rashes. Most migrants lacked shoes when they arrived on board. Taskayali fitted them for new ones. The job he despised entailed policing the migrants to ensure that they did not attempt to commit suicide or to escape this watery purgatory by leaping off one of the high decks.

A self-taught musician, Taskayali, who is now 29, started playing when he was 6 and composing when he was 11. For the past decade he has served as a troubadour pianist of sorts, using his music to comfort the afflicted. Traveling to Venezuela, Turkey, Ethiopia, Kenya, Indonesia, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, and Georgia, he performed in rural schools, private dinner parties, oncology wards, village squares and other settings where typical concerts are rare.

In Italy, Taskayali played for 150 inmates in the prison where his grandfather had worked his entire life. “I was relaxed on stage and in that hour we all forgot that we were inside a prison. At the end, as an encore, I played Caruso, by Lucio Dalla, and everyone stood up in a standing ovation.”, he recounted. “Only later, when the policemen entered, did I remember that I was not in a theater.”

Taskayali played alongside the “El Sistema” orchestra in the city of Caracas, in Chavez’s Venezuela, or in Hong Kong, shortly before the massive revolts that shook the region in 2019. “I would never have seen the eyes of those afraid of power,” Taskayali said, “if it weren’t for my work.” 

Born in Rome, raised in Istanbul, Taskayali speaks four languages (Italian, Turkish, French and English) and he describes his split identity as an asset, a perpetual “outsiders” point of view, that enables him to relate with migrants everywhere. “I don’t feel I belong to either” he said of his dual citizenships: Italian and Turkish. He quickly adds, however, that his music truly offers a “universal” and emotional language that works in all contexts. “Culture has no borders,” he said.

“Having lived in Istanbul, a city divided by the ocean, for many years, I have seen ships from all over the world traveling back and forth,” Taskayali said. “The most beautiful thing you can experience when afloat in the wide expanse of water is silence.” For a musician or any artist, this silence helps creativity, Taskayali said, adding that it is “the blank canvas to start painting with sound.”

The humanitarian crisis occurring on the Mediterranean Sea is all too familiar. Fleeing war, torture, poverty, extortion, sexual violence, and forced labor, tens of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East regularly make their way most often to Libya and Tunisia, before setting out on desperate attempts to cross the Mediterranean and find some kind of sanctuary in Europe. If the migrants make it out of African waters and onto the high seas they are often rescued by groups like Doctors Without Borders and taken into Italian waters where they are disembarked not on land but onto the quarantine ships.

Covid has created especially disassociated times for everyone. But Taskayali pointed out that no one is more disconnected than Europe’s unwelcome guests left floating in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

Still, Taskayali said that hope remains and the music helps tap into that sense of possibility. Drawing from the inspiration and sense of fortitude he saw among the migrants, Taskayali composed —and is still composing— music that tells the story of the people he met. The melodies, played by ear and recorded, as he does not write scores, are “full of hope,” he says, because that was the feeling that accompanied him throughout.

“I had hope for these people, for the future that awaited them in Europe.” He remained hopeful even when Abou Diakite, a 15-year-old boy from Côte d’Ivoire who had been rescued and taken aboard the Allegra, became severely ill. He tested negative for COVID-19, and was suspected of having a urinary tract infection. After being transferred to the mainland and rejected at a first hospital in Palermo —at the height of the pandemic health crisis, there were no empty beds— Diakite died. Taskayali had helped him into the ambulance.

“After that I was happy, I  thought the trip was done, that he was safe and that he would be treated in a hospital. When I returned to the piano and played again, an hour later, I was full of hope. Five days later I learned that Abou had died, but I didn’t touch the songs I had written,” he says.

Marta Montojo is a journalist and the Foreign Editor of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea.

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