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...

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.

-Engineer, producer and Playing For Change leader Mark Johnson


Photo of Mark Johnson on the job

"What all these musicians would do was find ways of enhancing the overall message and overall feeling," Johnson said. "In the studio a lot of people will overplay and outside on the streets I had a lot of people really listening to each other and just finding a moment where they could contribute to this thing. 'Stand By Me' is about 40 people, 'War/No More Trouble' is over 50, and all those songs have so many people playing and singing but they still have a lot of space, and I think that is because people were finding ways to make it better rather than themselves better."

Among the vast array of performers that have participated in the Playing For Change videos, a few stand out after repeated viewings. Of course, well known faces like Bono, Keb' Mo, and Manu Chao are recognizable to many, but this project has shone a bright light on the talents of many other musicians who were flying under the radar of most of the world until Johnson showed up with his cameras and recording equipment.

The Playing For Change adventure began when Johnson heard the powerful voice of Roger Ridley belting out "Stand by Me" from more than a block away. For years, Ridley had been driving from his home in Las Vegas to share his music with the masses on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica every week because, as he told Johnson shortly after they met, he was "in the joy business." His fellow performers called Ridley "the voice of God," and shortly after he viewed the final version of the "Stand by Me" video that he inspired, he suffered a heart attack and left this Earth too soon. As she mourned his death, Ridley's wife stumbled upon and watched the DVD that Johnson had sent and then called him. She was thrilled to know that her husband will be remembered because he was a part of something bigger than most of us could ever hope to be.

With Ridley no longer with us, Grandpa Elliott has assumed the position of the elder statesman of the Playing For Change family. When Johnson and his team visited New Orleans for the first time, they were on a mission to find Elliott because they knew that his contribution to the project would be invaluable. Grandpa has been an integral part of the fabric of the rich New Orleans street music scene for decades. His soulful voice and uplifting harmonica ring through the French Quarter and bring joy to the hearts of locals and tourists lucky enough to catch his performances.

Alongside Grandpa, Clarence Bekker is one of the main voices of Playing For Change. He has been involved with the project since very early on and brings his own unique background to the table. He has been singing for most of his life and rose to fame in the early '90s with a string of dance hits in Europe. Disillusioned with the music business, Bekker left his dance roots behind and took to the streets to share his own music.

Grandpa Elliott from Playing For Change's photostream
"After being a star in the dance scene, which is more production than actual music, I decided to start learning guitar and start to see what the real music industry is all about," Bekker said. "I traveled around the world with my guitar, trying to earn money on the streets. It was something totally different, and that made me change my whole attitude toward music and made me see the whole industry on another level. I did it on purpose. I'd had it with the record companies telling me exactly what to do, how to act, when to do it, and where to do it. I got really fed up with that. I was too young to throw myself away on that kind of thing. So, I decided to make my own decisions and go around the world, go traveling."

While all three of these men fit into the Playing For Change family very well, it seems particularly fitting that Bekker and Johnson crossed paths, as their calling seems to be so similar. Both men were successful in their own musical endeavors but were seeking something more from the art form. To these men, and people like them, it isn't just about making money and gaining recognition; it's about sharing the power of music with the world.

Steve Molitz with Playing For Change
From Playing For Change's photostream
"When a man has that kind of talent and chooses to sing on the street for the immediacy of affecting passersby that is about as successful as it can get," Johnson said. "Maybe he doesn't choose money but look at what he does choose, joy and connection, and isn't that what music is supposed to be about? One thing we have learned is that as successful as somebody like Bono might be it's not just about fame and fortune, it's really about soul, and each one of these musicians has so much of that."

For years, street musicians, like Bekker, Elliott, and Ridley, have been able to turn the heads of those passing by who had no intention of stopping, and almost as soon as the video of "Stand By Me" hit the Internet in November of 2008 their performances became a viral sensation that has accumulated more than 30 million views to date (watch it here). Now, Johnson has combined the amazing talents of the participants in the Playing For Change videos into an all-star 10-person live band that embodies the spirit of the Playing For Change mission.

The band features musicians from around the world that many people have come to know through Johnson's videos. Elliott and Bekker are handling vocal duties with the help of Mermans Kenkosenki, Titi Tsira, and Jason Tamba. The rhythm section is comprised of Mohammed Alidu on talking drums and djembe, Peter Bunetta behind the kit, and Ruben Rodriguez on bass guitar. Multi-instrumentalist Louis Mhlanga will be playing guitar and other instruments, and new addition to the group Steve Molitz (Particle, Phil Lesh & Friends) will be on keyboards throughout the tour.

"The way I would describe these people is that they are music," said Johnson. "It is at the core of who they are as people. They play music to survive. Whether it is to survive from economic strife or political strife or whatever it might be, music is at the heart of who they are, and they are amazing at representing all those around them who need music to help them have a voice in the world. I feel that when people come to these concerts they are going to walk away feeling more connected to the people around them. They are going to care more about the people around them and that is going to make them care more about themselves, and that is probably the most likely way to make real change."

Continue reading for more on Playing For Change...

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.

-Mark Johnson


Photo of Mark Johnson on the job

It is not a new idea to harness the power of music to bring the world together, and in fact benefit concerts have been organized all around the world since George Harrison staged the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in 1970. However, Playing For Change is not a benefit concert. It is a movement to benefit the world that is gathering speed and followers. While projects like Live Aid, Live 8, and We Are The World relied on established and popular performers to send the message, Playing For Change sends the message through relatively "common" people who have music in their soul and want to share it at any cost.

Mark Johnson
Though the Playing For Change movement started out as a video project to unite musicians of the world, Johnson soon realized that it was turning into something much bigger and he needed to figure out a way to give back to the communities that were giving so selflessly of themselves.

"We would say to these people, 'What can we do to give back to you?' A lot of times they would say, 'We need a music school because these kids need hope,'" said Johnson. "In many cases you find that the only reason that people choose violence is because there is no other option and I think that is a really humbling thing."

As a result of this kind of request the Playing For Change Foundation was created and, according to their website, the foundation "is dedicated to connecting the world through music by providing resources (including, but not limited to facilities, supplies, and educational programs) to musicians and their communities around the world."

"We decided to find out what happens if we build music schools for kids, and then install recording equipment and cameras so people can log on to the Internet and watch recitals and interviews with the kids," Johnson explained. "That breaks down the distance barrier that people use as an excuse not to participate. Now you can see the kids you are helping and you can see the immediate impact that the school is having on their lives."

Sur Sudha - Playing For Change :: Kathmandu, Nepal
He explained that this truly is a worldwide project, much like the "songs around the world" videos that made the foundation possible. "We are connecting all the schools so kids in our school in Nepal can play with kids in our school in Africa in real time. That breaks down the stereotypes and the prejudices that we all develop at a young age. It makes people more like citizens of the planet, and eventually we will try to raise the consciousness of the planet by having hundreds of schools that are all interconnected. That is the big picture idea and it just takes one step at a time."

At this point, the foundation has built the first three music schools of this network and is currently working on the fourth.

"You can't build a music school because you want to. It has to be something that we make with them, and it has to be their identity and their school and we are just here to help them facilitate it. That is the only way it would ever last," explained Johnson. "In these locations we had enough in depth connection to the community to know that it was indeed what they wanted and needed."

"The first school we built was in Guguletu, South Africa in the exact spot where the guy is playing the upright bass in the 'Stand By Me' video. That spot is now a beautiful, beautiful music school," continued Johnson. "The second one is in Tamale, Ghana in the village of Mohammed Alidu, our talking drum and djembe player. The third one is in Tintale, Nepal, which is an ancient village about 17 hours outside of Kathmandu. They have unbelievable musicians and dancing in this area but they have had zero access to technology. So, we went there and started building a school, and now it is the most powerful thing in the world to see them feel connected to the world around them in a very positive way. There just aren't words for something like that."

Johnson went on to explain a little bit about the school that the foundation is currently building in Africa and how the project is different from the previous schools.

Mark Johnson
"We are building our fourth school in a village in Mali which is essentially where the blues comes from, the pentatonic scale. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world and we are going to be working with solar power because they have no electricity in the village. That will offer us the chance to bring in different partners and show people that technology can be used how it was meant to be, to actually help people."

All around the world there are amazing musicians who are literally playing for change on the streets of our cities. They may be there because they have nowhere else to be and desperately need the money to make ends meet, or they may be there because they have chosen to share their music with the world this way. Either way, their music is making the rest of our lives just a little bit better every time we hear it and the Playing For Change crew has figured out a way to give some of these individuals the recognition they deserve.

Playing For Change serves as a reminder to the world that music holds a very special power that transcends race, religion, language, and socio-economic status. It is one of the few things that we have in common on this planet and Mark Johnson's vision has given us the rare opportunity to look through a window into a world where peace through music is more than a slogan, it is a reality.

You can purchase the Playing For Change CD and DVD here.

The Playing For Change band is on tour now; dates available here.

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