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Playing for Change unites musicians to unite the world

The organization has a new CD/DVD release, 'Playing for Change: Songs Around the World' due April 28.

March 19, 2009|Yvonne Villarreal
  • ?The idea was to find a way to inspire the world to come together,? Johnson said. ?To stop the hate. To see the commonality we share."
?The idea was to find a way to inspire the world to come together,? Johnson… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Inside a dimly lighted studio in Santa Monica, engineer-producer Mark Johnson and his team were recently putting the final touches on a soulful rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." Red lights flashed and dials moved on the giant soundboard as the crew got to work. The cry of a harmonica was raised, the pitch of an electric guitar lowered. Each adjustment worked to reinforce the emotional charge of the vocals by Grandpa Elliott, a French Quarter musician, and singer-songwriter Clarence Bekker. The track combines the talents of six performers -- none of whom have met.

"The idea was to find a way to inspire the world to come together," Johnson said. "To stop the hate. To see the commonality we share. I think that source of inspiration can be found in music."

The track is one of 10 that will be featured on "Playing for Change: Songs Around the World," a DVD/CD package available April 28 at Starbucks and retail stores. But "Change" isn't limited to shrink-wrapped CDs with your morning latte; under its banner, a five-stop tour with some of the project's myriad artists gets underway today at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and comes Monday to L.A.'s Knitting Factory. And co-founder Johnson calls "Change" a "multimedia movement," meant to "inspire, connect and bring peace throughout the world with music."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 20, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
'Playing for Change' artist: An article in Thursday's Calendar section about the CD/DVD package "Playing for Change: Songs Around the World" stated that Manu Chao was one of the artists in a rendition of the song "One Love." Chao was not involved.

At some level, it seems to be working. The first track off the album is a cover of Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" performed by 37 musicians from the Netherlands, Brazil, Spain and Russia, among other countries. The video for the song has already been viewed nearly 8 million times on YouTube since November.

The artists also take on a couple of Bob Marley classics. A version of "War/No More Trouble" even features U2's Bono, and American blues singer Keb' Mo' and Spain's Manu Chao perform with 35 musical artists in "One Love," the video of which was shown at the December opening of the L.A. Live complex.

"I was just happy to be part of something so special," said Keb' Mo', whose Grammy-winning 2004 album "Keep It Simple" Johnson engineered. "What he's doing is amazing."

The CD package and tour are just the latest venture under the Playing for Change umbrella; Johnson and his team have produced the documentaries "Playing for Change: A Cinematic Discovery of Street Music" and "Playing for Change: Peace Through Music" -- both of which appeared at the Tribeca Film Festival.

And they've generated music videos that feature collaborative and individual songs from musicians around the globe.

Even so, many of the performers have never met. Their names may not be well-known. Most have never stepped foot in a recording studio. But through music, commonality emerges.

"Music is a universal enjoyment," said Johnson, 35, who founded the organization along with producer Whitney Burditt in L.A. "We wanted to highlight all that it does and can do."

The crew's interaction with the various musicians through their travels inspired the establishment of the Playing for Change Foundation, which aims to offer facilities, technology and musical instruments to artists and their communities, including working with South African poet Lesego Rampolokeng to build the upcoming Mehlo Arts Center, a creative writing school for youth in Johannesburg, South Africa. (All musicians on the CD/DVD and tour were compensated for their performances, a spokesman said, with featured performers due to receive royalties; specific figures were not available.)

The idea for Playing for Change sprang from an otherwise daily practice for Johnson: waiting for a New York subway. But on this particular day a decade ago, there were two monks performing as crowds of morning commuters huddled around.

"Here were people who normally would rush by one another," Johnson said. "But they were suddenly standing side by side. And it was the music that did that. It brought them all together."

A few months later, Johnson was in Santa Monica when he heard the lyrics of "Stand by Me" drifting toward him. A street musician, Roger Ridley, was performing King's 1961 hit, and Johnson ran over to hear. When Ridley agreed to be recorded and filmed, Johnson's globe-trotting ways soon followed.

For years, Johnson and his circle flew with recording equipment and cameras in search of little-known musicians for what would become Playing for Change -- its name evoking the coins thrown to street musicians as well as the transformation music inspires, Johnson said.

The musicians are recorded in different pockets of the world -- New Orleans, South Africa, Himalayas, Jerusalem -- and under streetlights, in doorways or parks or against hilly backdrops. The performances are then edited together, allowing the strangers to collaborate despite thousands of miles of distance between them.

Those collaborations can reach more ears now that they've been compiled into the CD/DVD package. The project will be released on Hear Music, the joint venture between Concord Music Group and Starbucks, and will also feature musician interviews and videos for the songs.

"Mark strikes me as a messenger," said TV producer and Concord Records owner Norman Lear, who became aware of Johnson's efforts from a friend. "He wants to change the world, and we want to help him. If Paul McCartney and Ray Charles can sell records at Starbucks, so can all these unknown musicians. It's not about the name. It's about the music."

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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Playing for Change

Where: Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Price: $20

Contact: store.playingfor change.com

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