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One note at a time, they try to make a difference : Playing for Change is proving that street musicians can have a global influence.

November 13, 2009|Geoff Boucher

In this digital era of distraction and celebrity, how long could the sound of simple sidewalk music possibly echo? The answer, it turns out, is five years and counting.

Tonight, nine street musicians from across the globe will play at Club Nokia under the banner of Playing for Change, a name that winks at their busker background and declares their mission of making the world a better place through melody.

That's a dangerously earnest goal in this ironic age, but Playing for Change, one of the surprising stories in 2009 pop culture, has made bold optimism its backbeat.

"The hope is to connect people that might ordinarily never come together," said Playing for Change creator Mark Johnson. "Regardless of divisions all over the world in religion, the politics, cultural view, economic status . . . music has proven that it can bring us together."

What exactly is Playing for Change? It's getting trickier to answer that question. At the start, it was a documentary effort -- the features "Playing for Change: A Cinematic Discovery of Street Music" and "Playing for Change: Peace Through Music" mined messages of cultural uplift in the lives and work of musicians who might perform on pavements, train platforms and dirt paths. But the brand has morphed into a number of enterprises.

In April, Hear Music's two-disc "Playing for Change: Songs Around the World" debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard album sales chart and got a second wind in August when the "Peace Through Music" documentary began airing on PBS stations. There's also the nonprofit Playing for Change Foundation, which this year opened a music school in the Gugulethu Township of South Africa and built two more in Tintale Village, Nepal, and Tamale, Ghana.

And there's a for-profit music label that this month released "Sugar Sweet," an album by New Orleans bluesman Grandpa Elliott, one of the breakouts from the now-celebrated confederacy of buskers.

Elliott is one of the 37 musicians featured in the most persistent success of Playing for Change -- the music video for an especially evocative rendition of the Ben E. King hit "Stand by Me," which has been viewed more than 30 million times on YouTube and other Internet video hubs.

Elliott will be at Club Nokia performing along with Playing for Change compatriots Titi Tsira of South Africa, Mohammed Alidu of Ghana, Peter Bunetta of Los Angeles and Clarence Bekker of the Netherlands, in addition to special guests Ziggy Marley and Toots Hibbert.

The night will be hosted by Johnson and Norman Lear, a signature figure in the history of American television and a mentor to Johnson in the unexpected odyssey of Playing for Change.

Lear's Concord Music Group is a partner in the Playing for Change music label, but as he sat sipping juice with Johnson at a recent brunch, it was clear that the pair's friendship goes beyond a business venture.

"What Mark has looked for is the magic that binds us, the power of music and emotion that it allows at a deep and honest level," Lear said.

He praised Johnson's approach; the Playing for Change ethos is to capture streetside performances in New Orleans, the Himalayas, Jerusalem and other locales and edit them together, allowing vagabond souls to collaborate across vast distances. "You cannot watch these moments," Lear said, "and not feel them."

Johnson began the endeavor by chance. Working as an engineer at a recording studio in New York, he found himself mesmerized one day by a performance that was nowhere near a microphone.

"There were two monks painted all in white, both wearing robes, one playing a nylon guitar and the other singing in a language that I didn't understand and that I'm sure most of the other people there didn't understand," Johnson said. "What I witnessed was that everybody stopped and listened. They didn't get on the train. Their jaws were dropping, some were crying; I was fascinated that anything could bring all these people together, people that usually rushed by."

Johnson said in shows on this tour he's seen an emotional reaction from audiences that is different from the ovations given established stars. He added: "Just like with 'Stand by Me,' you start with one voice, one player, and when you're done, if you did it right, the whole world is singing along."




for Change

Where: Club Nokia, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8:30 tonight

Price: $20 to $96.50

Contact: (213) 765-7000

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