Playing for Change in New Orleans

Playing for Change in New Orleans
July 22, 2009
by Rachel Jones

Native American reservations, the Himalayas, African villages and U.S. streets are all connected, even though they are hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Musicians from all over the world have been brought together by the Playing for Change movement, even though they have never met.

Playing for Change is a movement to bring peace to the world through music by recording and piecing together the voices and musical talents of street musicians and artists around the world. The album hit No. 10 on Billboard’s Top 200 Pop chart in its first week and has taken the Internet by storm.

Creator Mark Johnson is a Grammy-winning producer/engineer who has been in the music business for years. But it wasn’t until an experience working in New York City a decade ago that really showed him how music unites even the unlikeliest people.

“About 10 years ago I saw two monks painted all in white from head to toe, both wearing robes, one of them playing a nylon guitar and the other singing in a language I didn’t know,” Johnson said. “I imagine that the other 200 people that stopped didn’t know, either, but nobody got on the train that day. Everybody was mesmerized by this music. Normally these people run right by each other, yet here they were, all were listening to this music that they didn’t even understand.”

Johnson never forgot the vision he had seen all those years ago and the power that music has to break down boundaries and unite people.

“That day I realized that the best music I had heard in my life was on the way to the studio and not in the studio,” Johnson said. “That’s when I realized that great music and great art is everywhere, just moments in time, but we can use those moments to inspire people to come together. That was kind of the birth of Playing for Change.”

For four years, Johnson and his crew traveled around the world trying to incorporate as many cultures, races, religions, political views and economic statuses as possible to represent the world through song. The very first song, however, kept them in their hometown of Santa Monica, Calif., where they were inspired by one of the local street musicians.

“I wanted to start out with something positive that had a universal message. About five years ago I was walking on the street, and I heard the voice of Roger Ridley singing “Stand By Me.” He just had so much soul in his voice, and I just thought this would be an amazing song to take around the world, put headphones on musicians and just add to the tracks,” Johnson said. “That was the start for the whole global Playing for Change film and album.”

The Playing for Change album was released in April and had great commercial success with “Stand By Me” having over 20 millions views on YouTube. The song features more than 35 musicians from around the world.

That, however, doesn’t begin to compare to “War/No More Trouble,” which features over 50 musicians from local Congo drummers to a Tel Aviv guitarist to the women’s voices of the Oneness Choir in India to U2’s front man, Bono, in Dublin.

Even with traveling and recording musicians around the globe, Johnson kept coming back to his favorite musical city in the U.S. -- New Orleans. He spent a lot of time there over the years working with the street musicians, but it wasn’t until after Hurricane Katrina that he partnered with Grandpa Elliot, a Crescent City legend.

“After Katrina I came down to see what was happening with the music and with the city, and that’s when I got to bring my crew and meet Grandpa,” Johnson said. “At the time he still had his sight, so I was able to show him some of the videos, and he became excited about Playing for Change, and we just became good friends.”

Grandpa Elliot loaned his voice and harmonica to the Playing for Change project and is featured in several of the songs, including “Stand By Me.” Johnson loved working with him and has been in New Orleans producing a new album for Grandpa that will be a combination of street and studio work to which the world musicians will be adding their tracks.
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