SFP: Playing for Change

Aug 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Matt Gallagher

LOCATION RECORDINGS UNITE PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD

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Mark Johnson listens to a recording for the Playing for Change project.

Mark Johnson listens to a recording for the Playing for Change project.

Playing for Change is the name of an ongoing multimedia movement designed to unite people through music. You may have encountered it online in the video “Stand By Me,” which, as of this writing, has been viewed on YouTube more than 12 million times. It begins with street musician Roger Ridley performing the 1961 Ben E. King classic on guitar and vocals outdoors at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif. Ridley is subsequently “joined” by 37 other musicians singing and playing along with him in New Orleans, The Netherlands, New Mexico, France, Brazil, Russia, Venezuela, The Congo, South Africa, Spain and Italy.

ONLINE EXTRAS

WATCH:
Video: "Stand By Me"

WATCH:
Video: "Let's Don't Worry"

The man wearing headphones and documenting all of those performances in the video is Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer/director Mark Johnson, who envisioned, created and cultivated Playing for Change during a period of 10 years. For Johnson, the collaboration, extensive travel and effort behind “Stand By Me” established the template for Playing for Change (playingforchange.com), which now encompasses the 2009 CD and DVD release Playing for Change: Songs Around the World, featuring 10 songs and seven videos from the Hear Music label; the nonprofit Playing for Change Foundation, which offers facilities, technology, musical instruments and education to communities worldwide; and the feature-length documentary Playing for Change: Peace Through Music, which is slated to debut this month on PBS.

In the documentary, musicians offer heartfelt performances in the moment from the streets of their hometowns. Johnson shared the ways in which he and his fellow engineers captured and mixed these passionate, once-in-a-lifetime performances.

How did you know where to go and which musicians to record?

When you're making a documentary, you basically raise enough money for airline tickets and go. So a lot of it was just showing up; a lot of it was also researching different parts of the world and what kind of music they have. I knew I wanted to add choral music from South Africa and sitars from Asia. So I would start off with a road map and show up in countries with a guide I would find in that area.

The whole idea of the project was to get back to the roots of the music, and to do that I felt like we had to go to the streets. It definitely was not [just] a project about street musicians; it's about all musicians. Street musicians alter people's opinions of success because they don't change their art; they go out and play every day, and somebody can walk by and have a life-changing experience.

It reminds me of friends' stories about visiting Cuba and Brazil and hearing the incredible music on the streets.

Exactly. When you go to the people, you'll always find the most amazing music because it all comes from the soul. Music is one heart to another without any filter, and that's what we were trying to explore. So we wanted to go back to the roots of it all and start with that, so no matter what we had, at least it was pure and it was real. Musicians would tell other musicians, and that word of mouth helped us.

We recorded people in Native American reservations and subways and street corners and the Himalayan Mountains. We went all over the Middle East. Ninety-five percent of the music was recorded live outside. Musicians would hear whoever had played before them, and I would use an iPod video to show where [the performance] was at, at that time, so they could get a feel for it.

What inspired you to pursue this project for all these years?

I was a recording engineer at the Hit Factory in New York City in 1998. I was on my way to the studio one day, and there were two monks in the subway station; they were painted all in white from head to toe and they were playing music — one guy was playing a nylon guitar and the other was singing. I looked around and I saw all these groups of people come together through the music. Then I watched this performance, and some people were crying and dropping their jaws, and [I saw] a lot of smiling. I got on the train and it occurred to me that some of the best music I ever heard in my life was on the way to the studio.

How did you choose your recording equipment for this project?

[In the field,] I wanted to use the exact same equipment that I was using at the Hit Factory. So the idea was to bring that kind of equipment to the streets so that people have an opportunity to be heard in a much better context than microphones [mounted] on cameras, which was the most common way of documenting people outside.






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