As the song played out a narrator told the story of how this group was using music to make the world a better place. I had to know more so I found the video on YouTube along with many other renditions of some of the world's finest music all with the same purpose. That group was 'Playing for Change' and following their progress I learnt their goal was more than just inspiring change but making it a reality with the power of music.
New Jersey born sound engineer and music producer Mark Johnson one day had a glimpse into the power of music to connect and bring people together. This flash of inspiration took shape and in partnership with producer and kindred spirit Whitney Kroenke 'Playing for Change' was born. It started off as a documentary charting the stories and music of street performers in the US and then around the world. It has since transformed into a global army of passionate musicians and artists at war with despair and poverty with music as their ammunition and the Internet their weapon of choice. Their 'Songs around the World' have become a YouTube sensation and with that reach they have brought real hope and change to those who need it. Co-founder Mark Johnson took time out from his very busy schedule to speak to me about how an ordinary day planted the seed for an idea that has grown into a positive force.
The story to that was while I was still in New York City I was on my way to work one day on the subway, and I saw these two monks, painted all in white with robes. One was playing a nylon guitar and the other one was singing (I don’t know what language) and I come down the platform to get on the train and I just see a huge amount of people. I mean everyday there was music in the subway and some people watch, some don’t but this day it’s just mobbed you know? Nobody’s getting on the train and I hear this beautiful music, and I just had this great, epiphany would be the word because I listened to this music and looked around. I saw a little girl and an elderly woman, a homeless man next to somebody going to Wall Street, everybody was taking in this music. I had been looking for deeper meaning in life at that point in my life like “where is my career going to be?” “how am I going to make sense out of all of this?” In that moment I kind of saw this beautiful effect that music can have because it can really transcend all those things that makes us different and connect us back to what makes us the same – humanity! In this moment I just felt this great connection to the musicians and the music.
|Partners in change; Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke|
You know originally the idea was to record and film people who would otherwise slip through the cracks of society; that’s how we were wording it at the time. Just some way to give people a chance and a voice but when you study documentaries a lot of times, if it’s in the street, it’s just low fidelity – you know low quality? So we decided to bring high quality to the people let’s let them have a recording studio where they are that way we can really capture the magic of that moment where there’s no separation between the music and the people. In the studio you close the door and in concerts you have the stage and security, but in the street it’s just two connected people making music together and that’s what we wanted to go explore. That’s when we had the idea for the film.
I wanted to ask you about the film because unless I am mistaken it’s not one that’s come over to the UK for some reason I don’t think it’s been screened or shown from what I can tell. Can you tell me more about the film?
It’s called 'A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians' and in that film we travelled all across America with some cameras and a mobile recording studio powered by golf cart batteries and we went to three cities; Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York City – it's important to note that was New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina so it was a little different. That was our chance to really get to know what the musicians were like out there, what are their stories and when we started this thing we just fell in love with it; it was the most amazing people, so much conviction, so much talent and also it really made me redefine what is success because everybody looks at success based on economics but if you’re a musician and you want to make money then you’re going to end up changing your music to support business. These street musicians they kept their conviction and stayed true to their music because they said “I got a song and I am going to go out and play it for whoever wants to hear it." To me that was success because they were out there living their dream and I just live in some other variation of that dream.
Interesting. You then went on to make a second film.
Right. The second film we made was called 'Peace through Music'. 'Cinematic Discovery' played at film festivals, played on TV in America and it was really raw but it had great stories and talent; one example is a deaf trumpet player and you’re watching him thinking “this guy can’t play, he can’t even hear himself”. Then some boy is walking on the street sees him playing, feels the conviction that this guy’s out there so he brings his horn out and starts playing, soon he gets a million dollar record deal when he and his mom only had five dollars to their name. So you start to see the great things that happen on the street. With 'Peace through Music' the idea was we were going to go to all these diverse cultures and have them all play the same song so that we can show people how we’re really all connected. One day I was walking on the street in Santa Monica, California – I was a recording engineer for Jackson Browne at the time - and I heard a street musician singing 'Stand by Me' and he just had so much soul and talent, he sounded like Otis Redding on the street. I am listening to him singing so I approached him and said “if I come back with some recording equipment and cameras I’d love to record you and film you playing 'Stand by Me'. Then I am going to travel the world, put headphones on musicians and have them doing the same song.” He looked at me like I was crazy but he said “alright if you come back I’ll play the song”. When I came back I said “You know Roger with a voice like yours why are you singing in the street?” He said “Man I am in the joy business I come out to bring joy to the people.” And that was really an inspirational moment for us, because not only were we going to make a film about peace through music with a great singer singing 'Stand by Me' but it was coming from a man in the joy business and that felt like the right catalyst to start our project globally. That was the spark of a project. So 'Stand by Me' was part of this film making up five songs around the world along with 'One Love' 'Chanda Mama' 'Don’t Worry' and 'War; No More Trouble'.
|Roger Ridley bringing joy to the people|
That’s amazing. Thing about Roger Ridley he was quite a character wasn’t he? I was watching his rendition of 'Bring it on Home' and he dedicated it for my friend back here Mark. I take it that was you. Were you two friends?
We were friends. I had done some interviews with him and also I am taking his song 'Bring it on Home' all around the world as a last tribute to Roger. I am almost done actually. I’ve been working on it since that day. A ten year video. Be out in two months.
I look forward to seeing it. So how well was “Peace through Music” received when it played at festivals and on television?
Well that was much better because it just reached a lot more people. What happened was when we finished the film in 2008 that was right around the time of YouTube was getting creative and so we went on an interview with a show in America called 'Bill Moyers Journal'. He was a famous journalist and he wanted me to come on the show before the election with Barack Obama. He didn’t care how people voted but he wanted to feel more of a human connection so he asked me to play 'Stand by Me' and 'One Love' on his very popular news show on PBS and people took the videos off his show and put them on YouTube. I didn’t even know what YouTube was so it was just getting sent around like crazy. Suddenly we realised this is sort of a new art form because instead of making these long form films that only some people see we can tell a similar story in five minutes and millions see it instantly you know? So it was really the new paradigm shift of 'Playing for Change' from documentaries to this sort of media where we realise we can reach more people in more places with the songs around the world than any other way. I mean this is real humanity here, this is the world connecting it gives them a chance to overcome obstacles either self-created or in the world. I mean there’s so many things dividing us that I think these videos become a tool to help reconnect us.
From what you’ve said then ultimately the message of the videos, the movement is uniting people through music bringing people together. It’s interesting that the song choices throughout right up to now do reflect that – you mentioned 'One Love' there’s 'Imagine' as well and 'Higher Ground'. Were a lot of these just personal choices between yourself and the artists or did you sit down and actually think about what songs would be needed to convey such a powerful message?
I think it was all a combination but in the beginning the songs we chose were just as important as anything else. In the beginning we wanted to pick two types of song; one would just be a song for complete unity like 'Stand by Me' or 'One Love' but we also wanted to pick songs like 'Higher Ground' and 'Gimme Shelter' which remind people that there’s an urgency, people are dying right now. We can take our time and be prejudice or we can let it go on the count of three and help each other, that’s our reality. Those kids I would travel and see I knew I was coming home to America, I knew I had food and warmth. These kids have nothing and we are the ones who are supposed to give them a world to be proud of so sometimes you have to make music that is also firing the urgency of humanity coming together because sooner or later we’re going to come together and it’s either going to be from inspiration or tragedy so let’s make it come from inspiration. That’s who we make the songs for.
So going back to the 'Stand by Me' video and song, the way it was all put together with the different artists, different styles it has such a diverse sound, different tones of voice, different instruments yet it all seems to come together so well. Was that by accident or did you stop to think about which artist (or type of performer) was needed to make it work so well?
You know, again it’s a combination but it does go to show how well music does fit together that’s something that is just real. What we would do is look at different instruments and cultures to see what kind of styles that could be fused together. In 'One Love' I wanted to hear how a steel guitar and a sitar sounded like togetherbecause they have a similar connection but you rarely seem them in the same environment. So some of it is that, just kind of putting together cousin instruments if you will, relatives like the talking drum and the Tabla which have a similar sound but also trying to let it all unfold naturally. We don’t know who we are going to record next, what instrument they are going to play, if we are going to have enough songs that I can usually try to find the best fit and then you end up with something new every time.
How involved are you in all the songs and the videos, the actual production of them? Are you there recording?
Oh yeah. I record everything, direct everything, mix everything and for the last five years edited every video too. The thing about this is with the technology it’s easier for me to do both because I mix all the music and then I know exactly what I need to find in the video to match. So it can be very confusing for other people to come in and try to explain it. So I just do it all myself. We also have an amazing partner John Walls, he’s been there from the beginning and he’s amazing he shoots everything with us too. So we have a great team that’s been together for a long time.
|Mark at work on location|
Right, that’s a great question. You know the catalyst for that was when we were travelling we would see all these people and they would invite us in their homes, play us their music, tell us their stories, they’d offer us food. We realised this really means something to everybody; this isn’t just come, record, and leave. This is an opportunity to build something bigger, let’s call it a global family because that’s the context that we’re in. We were lucky where everybody loves music so much people were excited to talk about their own music and have a chance to record and to connect with people far away that they’re never going to meet. So we ask them “is there anything we can do to help you, to give back to you?” The best example of that was in Gugulethu, South Africa when I was recording “Stand by Me”.
The short story of this was that I had been given a picture that I have on my wall from my brother called 'A Day in the life of Africa' it was in this book, and in one photograph in this book were these musicians in Gugulethu township playing music, and they looked like they had so much soul but it also looked like everything around them was broken. So I said to myself and the crew we want to go there, we want to find those guys so we went down to South Africa started travelling the townships and we would just ask everybody – I did research and found out the bass player his name was Pokie – I was saying “does anybody know Pokie?” and of course nobody knew Pokie, until the last day we were recording these musicians and somebody said “Pokie is my best friend. I’ll take you out to the township.” They drove us out there. Now I’ve had his picture on my wall for years but he doesn’t know me so I get out of the van with some cameras I run up to see Pokie and I give him a big hug and he’s like “Whoa who are you?” I am thinking “Oh my God that’s right you have no idea who I am.” So I gave him my iPod video at the time so he could watch where 'Stand by Me' was at that moment. He watches it and I go in the backyard, and there I see just complete despair and poverty like I had never imagined; tin shacks, people dying of AIDS awful place. I remember thinking “Wow I’ve gone too far this is no place to record music.” So I go back inside and Pokie had already called all his friends to jam because he loves 'Stand by Me' and he was so excited. I said “Pokie we should probably go.” He said “No way man we are setting up now.” So what we witnessed as they play was a complete exorcism; the negativity goes away all the sorrow, all the despair, the women with the little babies they come out they’re dancing, they’re crying I mean I am crying because I’ve never seen anything like this. It went from the saddest place to the happiest place, and the only difference was that there was music.
|Pokie on the bass|
That was really the conviction and the context behind the 'Playing for Change Foundation' and actually our very first music school was built in the exact spot where Pokie played bass on 'Stand by Me' so if you watch 'Stand by Me' you’ll see him in a little ghetto and that exact location was our first music school. We now have 12 music schools, they’re all free, and they’re all owned by the community, there’s a couple of thousand children attending. So it’s really an amazing evolution, all of our schools are operated by the community though so they have the identity of their culture, the musical instruments, the styles and the structure comes from them and we support them. It’s a way to give back to the communities we met throughout our travels and try to build something bigger.
You’ve gone on to produce a tour album, three 'Playing for Change Songs Around the World' albums, soundtrack for the first documentary you made. I presume that’s one way you fund all this?
That’s one way that we fund it and then also the band. In order to build the first school in 2007 we said what if we assemble some of the best musicians who had never met from some of the videos and we create the 'Playing for Change' Band? So that’s when we brought Clarence Bekker and Grandpa Elliott on the same stage. They’d never met each other and since then they’ve played 300 concerts all over the world, did a big stadium tour with Robert Plant, I mean they’ve travelled everywhere and that became the next chapter of the project . They do more than just music for entertainment, they go to children’s hospitals, homeless shelters, they really engage with the communities and show music is much more than just to entertain people which you see less and less when it’s run by money; we use music for how it was meant to be we go back and give it back to the people. So we created the 'Playing for Change Band' and they tour the world so they are always fundraising at concerts; for example the newest live album is called 'Live in Brazil' and that was an amazing example because we brought the band, they played a sold out concert at an opera house in Curitiba, Brazil, and a hundred percent of the proceeds went to build a school in that city, and that’s our newest music school. It just reminds people that when we get together we can build sustainable things that can really help transcend our society.
Amazing; I didn’t realise, I mean I knew the tours took place but I never realised they went beyond that, it’s fantastic.
Oh yeah and the phenomena is Grandpa Elliott. First of all he’s been on the streets of New Orleans for 60 years. Now he travels the world and they treat him like Elvis. It’s amazing, standing ovations, 10,000 people screaming, you know he’s blind, he can’t see them but he squeezes my hand and that’s the best feeling in the world. He’s amazing, so yes it’s turned into another way of reaching a large amount of people with the 'Playing for Change'band.
So how does someone like Grandpa Elliott respond to tens of thousands of people cheering his name?
It’s beautiful you know, amazing to see a man get a gift back. It’s important to know what Grandpa Elliott was; people think of street musicians and often at times they diminish that role but listen to what that guy was. He was the cultural hero of a racist society, a beautiful city, diverse city but with a lot of history of racism in New Orleans. Yet every morning, every day Grandpa Elliott is out there, singing a song and whether you’re a little white girl or a little black boy, elderly person, black or white, any colour it doesn’t matter. He’s your grandpa and he’s going to sing for you, and he did that for 60 years. That makes everyone have a thread of a commonality, and they can share in that, and that’s so vital what he gave to people and it should never be undervalued because it’s really huge, giving everybody a context to change their way of living, and now he’s getting some of that back. That’s why I love it so much because he’s getting that love back to him that he had given to everyone else.
And you helped him produce his first album under the Playing for Change presents label, 'Sugar Sweet' along with Clarence Bekker, Genevieve Chadwick. Is that another way for you to give back to them, the artists themselves?
Absolutely. It’s another way to just spread the music. The music business is so weird, people don’t really buy music anymore. It’s a way to get their music and their message and their heart out to people, and then we follow that up with other things like touring and merchandising, and finding other ways to help them sustain their lives.
That’s fantastic. You mentioned earlier that the band played with Robert Plant. I’ve noticed there has been some celebrity recogniseable names involved such as Jack Johnson, Keith Richards, David Crosby.
And Bono, he’s on our 'War/No More Trouble' video of our first album but yeah Billy Kreutzmann (Grateful Dead), David Crosby and Jimmy Buffett. Have you seen the 'Ripple' video? That has David Crosby and Jimmy Buffett on the song.
So what is their involvement? When you do get “named” musicians, recogniseable faces and voices involved – is their involvement just contributing to the song or are they actually more active behind the scenes?
You know it depends. The thing about these musicians is that they’re so busy so what we do is we get them to perform on the songs, and also because they want to. Keith Richards contacted us and said "You know 'Playing for Change' is the way music was meant to be so pick any song of mine, I’ll play on it and we’ll take it around the world.” So they get involved and Keith was really involved in the process. A lot of the musicians are, they want to see as it evolves over time, that’s part of the fun for them, but yes they feel like that is their contribution though, the musical part of it. There are others who want to get involved, visit the schools just depends on their own lives and how busy they are.
So as well as the schools you offer the 'Stand by Me' scholarship programs. Can you tell me a little bit more about that, what is the criteria and what do successful applicants get in the program?
The 'Stand by Me' scholarship program is really a way to personalise the students in our schools with the supporters around the world so that people can have more of a direct connection. So much of charity is sort of a blind faith you know? “I am going to write a cheque and I am going to hope it makes a difference” and often at times you never really see the difference you made; doesn’t mean you didn’t make one but you don’t see it. So our idea is to personalise it, show you a child playing a guitar you helped buy and now you get a gift you couldn’t buy in a store that day. It's reminding people that giving is getting and if we can get back to that reality because when I show up to these schools and I see those kids faces they’re giving me something a million dollars couldn’t buy me. I could buy a big diamond wear it around my neck and it would never mean anything like what those kids faces mean. So it’s about showing people that and the 'Stand by Me' scholarship program is a way to personalise a student with a sponsor and to help them see the change they’re making and really it becomes reciprocal the person helping the child gets help back by seeing the impact they’re having in a positive way and get to meet this person in a far off country. The criteria is that any of the students at our music schools are eligible we just use it as a tool to connect together donors with our students.
OK so moving on I’d like to talk about the 'Gimme Shelter' Project. We all know about the Earthquake in Nepal and how it’s affected the people there you organised the 'Gimme Shelter' Project. Can you tell me a little bit about that, who was involved, what was done and is that still ongoing?
Yes. The 'Gimme Shelter Project', the original idea came from one of our 'Playing for Change' producers named William Aura and he runs our schools in Asia so in Nepal and Thailand. He also played the bass on our 'One Love' video around the world and he had been taking many trips to Kathmandu over the years and had taken us there to record and film musicians. We have two music schools in Kathmandu, one is a bigger school and the second one is actually in an orphanage which is amazing. So we have a deep connection there and William goes once or twice or year for the last 20 years. You know after the earthquake there it was just so devastating and what we witnessed was the shortest attention span in history of helping people. This ancient city’s in ruins and you can’t find an advertisement or a news story to tell you anything about it. So we realised it was time for us to do more. Our project has always been about how we can create more humanity in a positive way so even in the midst of tragedy we still have to pick each other up and so no matter how bad or how good things are a positive reaction’s the only way it’s going to work especially in a human context in anybody but humanity especially. We realised we have to do something so we decided to use our song 'Gimme Shelter'that we did around the world and let’s use our resources to inspire people to do something immediate, to get together and help build these structures. William Aura found these amazing structures and found ways that if you put multiple together they could share bathrooms and lower the cost. These people are homeless after having homes for a 1000 years. We went over there and they’ve just built 20 new structures and it’s an ongoing process of delivering homes to people who need it in Kathmandu. It just goes to show what this project is about, music as a tool to connect, and unite and inspire in any way. It’s not just when things are going well it’s also when we need to lift each other up.
Any plans to expand the project to various other situations?
Yes we’re going to start to be a little bit more of an emergency relief tool because that’s one of the great gifts of music is that it can reach a lot of people. I mean our videos have been seen over 300 million times in 195 countries. That means it really is a human project and it is a tool that people can use to lift each other up. I always say no matter how many things in life divide us they’re never as strong as the power of music to bring us together and I think that’s what’s happening here so whether it’s crisis in the Middle East, war, or natural disasters you know music and 'Playing for Change' can be a source of inspiration and connection.
|One of the Foundation's many schools|
Do you think that because the world is becoming, well parts of it anyway, are becoming more dangerous that to do something like this now more than ever?
Yes and it’s also important to remember that it’s not the individual that’s going to be the problem it’s the system; systems of corruption, poverty, greed, those are the things we need to fix. The people everywhere are beautiful but a lot of the times they’re trapped by their environment. I think it’s important to let music show the humanity that we all share and then let’s work together to fight against the things that are the enemy of all of us, corruption and disease. So I think it is important for 'Playing for Change' to be more involved in helping raise the consciousness of humanity.
What are plans for moving forward in terms of school provision, scholarships, more music so on. Where are you going generally?
The great thing about this project is that it never ends because there’s always going to be more people to connect, more schools to build and more songs to make. Right now we are working on 'Playing for Change 4' recording and filming amazing musicians like Jack Johnson and other artists around the world. The 'Playing for Change Foundation' has twelve schools but now we’re really working to connect all the kids together so that children in London can meet kids in our schools through the lens of music and art live on the Internet through recitals, shows, interviews and exchange, to start to see the world you know to start to see eyes in people in places they never go to make more connections in humanity. We’re also looking to expand the programs to find partner schools, sister schools if you will, so that schools that already exist all over the world can partner with our schools and we can use them to connect, like 'Stand by Me' started with one man and his guitar and ends up with the world. We started with one school but we want to end up with all schools around the world interconnected through the lens of music, art, and hope.
So let’s look back then. You guys have done some amazing work over the years and you’re clearly enthusiastic and passionate about it and that really comes across. Looking back then if you could go back in time, take the young Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke bring them to today and show them all this would they fathom just how big this movement has become?
I don’t think so. I got a glimpse of it when I started making 'Stand by Me' and then seeing the people we would show it to's reaction. When you’re making something you’re so inside of it often times you don’t know if it’s good or bad but when I could see the faces of people, I mean it wasn’t just “Oh I liked it that was nice” it was more of a transformative experience you know? In the beginning when we first released 'Stand by Me' a woman sent me an email saying "I was contemplating suicide and I am going to live because I believe in this hope" and I think that just reminded us that this is much bigger than us you know? We’re a part of this, we’re characters in a play but this is much bigger than us and that’s given us a sort of humbleness to be able to maintain it. It has to be a project with no ego and so as much as we know sky’s the limit we also know it’s a one step at a time kind of project.
With everything you’ve managed to accomplish so far do you think you’ve taken up Roger’s mantle of spreading joy but on a much bigger scale?
With everything you’ve managed to accomplish so far do you think you’ve taken up Roger’s mantle of spreading joy but on a much bigger scale?
Yes I think so that is certainly on our good days. You know I always say on our best days we’re honouring all the people properly. Roger Ridley was a hero to me and so many others and now you know his legacy is being remembered in this way, in this 'Playing for Change' unifying context Roger’s sort of being the leader for it that voice. So it’s just an incredible honour to carry on that legacy and the joy business is really, well what could be better than to bring joy to the world? So I think in every way we honour that.
And you work with so many amazing musicians like Roberto Luti, Peter Buenetta, Grandpa Elliott, and Clarence Becker – you’ve become like an extended family almost because this isn’t a business more a shared passion that brings you together. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
|The Playing for Change family on a mission of joy|
I would say that’s exactly right. We don’t make decisions based on money we make them based on people and that gives us the chance to have something that’s built to last.
One last question. Say someone is sitting at home flicking through YouTube looking at various uploaded content and they come across one of your songs around the world and that song inspires them to want to be involved. What can they do to help?
The best way to get involved is we have a thing called the 'Peace Pledge.' If people can sign up to playingforchange.com and take the peace pledge, what that does is that means they will be able to support musicians and music schools all over the world and also be given access to the behind the scenes, the band on the road, schools being built, the recitals from the children, watch all the songs get made – it’s really a way to personalise and become a part of the project. Through that are all the tools about how personally do you want to get involved whether it be to donate, volunteer or perform on a song, if you take the pledge on the home page of our website you get much better access to being involved in the project and you also know for a small donation you’re helping people around the world. The money goes directly to the project, the musicians and the schools.
Thank you to Mark Johnson for taking the time to speak to me and the wonderful J.Marie Jones for arranging the interview.
All images provided courtesy of Playing for Change.
All images provided courtesy of Playing for Change.