Playing For Change: Music Making a Difference

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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[Published on: 11/3/09]

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