Playing For Change: Music Making a Difference

By: Tim Dwenger

Grandpa Elliott :: New Orleans, LA
How many times have you been walking down the street or through a bus, subway or train station and heard music that pulled your mind out from the everyday thoughts and made you stop and listen? It might have been a mournful sax tune, deft fingers plucking out a familiar melody on the strings of a nylon guitar, or a kid drumming on the bottom of a plaster bucket, but whatever it was it caught your ear for one reason: Because it was unusually good.

While there are millions of people who hear this kind of music everyday and are lucky enough to have it change their lives for a minute or two, about 10 years ago recording engineer and producer Mark Johnson heard two monks in a New York City subway station and it changed his life forever. "One of them was playing a nylon guitar and the other one was singing in a language that I didn't understand and I imagine most people didn't understand. On this day I saw about 200 people just stop and honestly nobody got on the train and everybody was watching these monks," Johnson told JamBase during a recent interview on the eve of the first date of the first Playing For Change tour.

"I just looked around during this performance of the most beautiful music I had ever heard and saw people crying and jaws dropping. Then, I got on the train and I went to the studio and it occurred to me that the best music I ever heard in my life was on the way to the studio and not in the studio. I think that was supposed to be some kind of message for me," said Johnson. "Music and art are just moments in time that can exist anywhere, but they have so much power in them, and if you can harness that power you can truly connect people everywhere regardless of your religion, your political view, your race, your culture, or how much money you have. This is one thing that we have on this planet that intrinsically can connect us. That was the day I realized that I wanted to search for those moments."

Roger Ridley :: Santa Monica, CA
As the moment on the subway platform marinated in his head, Johnson realized that most of the high-end equipment that he had access to in the recording studios he worked in was portable. It wasn't long before he had put together a mobile recording studio and made the decision that he would set out on a globe trekking adventure with the intent to record musicians that he encountered along the way and Playing For Change was born.

"I realized that I could have them all play on the same songs as I traveled and show people the power of what we can all do if we work together in a positive way," explained Johnson.

With the goal of creating a collaborative piece of music made up of performances by musicians from around the world, Johnson armed himself with a recording he had made of Roger Ridley singing Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, and began to draw up plans for his odyssey.

"I picked a roadmap of enough different cultures that everyone could relate to someone in the video," he explained. "I went from Africa to the Middle East, then to Europe, and then into Asia, India, and Nepal."

One of the intentions of this journey was to blend sounds from around the world that typically aren't heard together. This inspiration for this idea came during a recording session on the streets of New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina had decimated the city.

Mark Johnson
"We were recording a steel guitar and I realized that it would be amazing to have a steel guitar with a sitar because they have a similar feeling and esthetic but are rarely ever put together," said Johnson. "I guess some of this became about juxtaposing instruments that normally aren't together but fit in the same family. So, we ended up with tablas alongside talking drums, sitars with steel guitars, and chorale singers from Africa on the same song as chorale singers from Ireland."

When Johnson and his crew arrived in each of the countries they visited, they would utilize their connections to select a guide of sorts who would serve as their liaison to the culture's musical community. When faced with attempting to explain his goal and recruit new participants, Johnson realized that the vision he had in his mind was not one that others grasped easily.

"Without the iPod Video I wouldn't have gotten anything done," Johnson said with a chuckle. "I could try to explain what I was doing but either people wouldn't understand me or they wouldn't believe me. When I could show them where the video of 'Stand By Me' was at that point the result was incredible."

Clarence Bekker, a Dutch musician featured in several Playing For Change videos, echoed Johnson's feelings when JamBase caught up with him by phone from Washington, DC.

"I would tell you that I didn't have any idea what he was talking about as he tried to describe it to me for the first time," said Bekker. "I got the idea that he was going around connecting musicians together and I could imagine a documentary of all these musicians together, but when I saw the first footage of 'Stand By Me' it was like nothing I had ever come close to thinking about. It was absolutely, absolutely brilliant."

As the project progressed and Johnson continued to show the work in progress to musician after musician, he realized that not a single person had turned down his offer to participate. It was very clear to him that he had hit upon something special.

"The world does want to come together, and people believe that music is one of the best ways to do that," said Johnson. "The beauty of music is the universal language. I mean it is cliché to say it but whoever said it first was right. We are just excited that we can take people from all over the world who believe in the power of music and unite them together and actually create something stronger."

Hailing from everywhere including New Orleans, Louisiana to Matadi, Congo to Chennai, India, nearly 40 musicians lent their talents to the song and yet the final product didn't seem crowded.

Continue reading for more on Playing For Change...

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