Playing For Change: Music Making a Difference

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...

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