Playing for Change: Using Music to Bring the World Together
From guitarists in California to a choir in South Africa, the Playing for Change music project is using the world’s universal language to break down barriers and build meaningful connections.
BY: Matt Corbett
Working at a recording studio in New York City, sound engineer Mark Johnson was used to interacting with acclaimed musicians, ranging from Paul Simon to Biggie. One day, on his way to work, he noticed two monks performing some music as he was about to board the train. He was immediately hypnotized by their music and lyrics, until he realized such a large crowd had formed around them. In fact, the train he was supposed to board was empty! Johnson saw that the huge group of people ranged from businessmen to the homeless, and yet they were all gathered around two monks singing and playing songs that none of them could even understand. It was this moment that the initial seeds for Playing for Change were planted in his mind.
“Some of the best music I’d ever heard was being performed not in the studio, but on my way to the studio every day,” Johnson said in an interview with Beliefnet. He found this to be true not only in New York, but everywhere he went. While he was in Santa Monica, Johnson noticed a street musician named Robert Ridley performing a remarkable cover of “Stand by Me.” His voice immediately reminded Johnson of Otis Redding, and when he asked why Ridley was out performing on the street instead of professionally, his response was inspiring.
“Man I’m in the Joy business,” he said, “I come out to be with the people.” Johnson had worked in music for years, but it was at this moment that he realized its true power to create happiness and unity.
The Playing for Change music project seeks to do just that. To date, Playing for Change has released three albums: two studio recordings and one CD/DVD showcase. A new album is also scheduled to release this year. The Playing for Change band is composed of street musicians from countries across the globe including the United States, South Africa, India, Venezuela, Nepal, and Israel.
“Each region of the world has contributed something significant to a genre of music,” Mark says, so it’s easy to find unique performances anywhere. The Playing for Change albums bring all of this world music together on each track to create unique and eclectic covers of iconic songs from “One Love” by Bob Marley to “Imagine” by John Lennon.