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.
“So much sorrow became so much joy,” he noticed. Johnson recalls this as the single most powerful experience he’s had to date with Playing for Change; this same area eventually became the site of the first children’s school established by the Playing for Change Foundation.
As Johnson put it, he and his crew were “out there to build a family.” This idea of forming long-standing worldwide connections led him to create the Playing for Change Foundation. The foundation builds and supports children’s performing arts schools, connecting children in the same way the organization connects musicians on its albums. It seeks to erase stereotypes and break down language barriers to find common ground. Johnson loves that the foundation is able to create “visible change,” by physically showing the happiness and well-being music can bring to a person’s life.
What’s next? “There will always be more music, more people to connect, and more schools to build,” says Johnson. Playing for Change continues to grow and is always seeking new ways to fulfill its mission of connecting the world through music. The Playing for Change Band, made of musicians featured on the various albums, is actively touring and bringing the ideas of hope and happiness to people worldwide.
Mark sees music as the “Trojan Horse” that allows them all to bring positive change and combat discrimination. In addition, the videos’ popularity on YouTube has allowed viewers everywhere to recognize new areas of the world and feel an immediate, genuine connection to them. While nothing is set in stone, Mark looks forward to the possibility of helping even more by eventually providing telemedicine, clean water, and solar power-based aid.
Playing for Change 3: Songs Around the World is available June 17th, 2014 and features performances from Keith Richards, Sara Bareilles, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and more. Check out the preview, featuring "Reggae got Soul," below.