Playing For Change
Playing for Change began a decade ago, the brainchild of Grammy-winning music producer and engineer Mark Johnson. "I was in a subway in New York on my way to work, and I heard these two monks playing music," he recalls. "They were painted head to toe, all white, wearing robes. One was playing a nylon guitar, and the other was singing in a language I didn't understand. There were about 200 people who stopped to watch, didn't even get on the train. Some had tears in their eyes. And it occurred to me that here is a group of people that would normally run by each other, but instead they're coming together. And it's the music that brought them together."
For ten years Johnson and his team traveled the globe, with a single-minded passion to record little-known musicians for what would become Playing for Change - its name evoking the coins thrown to street musicians as well as the transformation their music inspires. They went to New Orleans shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. "The city felt sad and desolate, yet the music never stopped," says Johnson. "The street musicians and music in the clubs kept the city alive and gave it a sense of hope." When they visited South Africa and witnessed its growing pains in the aftermath of apartheid, "we saw that people marching down streets singing in groups of thousands did more to effect positive change than any weapons ever could."
Initially focusing on Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York, in 2004 PFC made its first documentary, Playing for Change: A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians. More recently came the April 2008 premiere of its latest film, Playing for Change: Peace Through Music, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. In September 2008, the film won the Audience Award at the Woodstock Film Festival. Directed by Johnson and Jonathan Walls (Automatic), the documentary features over 100 musicians around the world, combining their distant voices into a powerful group of global songs.
For the film, PFC's crew roamed across four continents for four years. An elderly guitar player in Santa Monica wails "Stand By Me," and his performance serves as the guiding track for a multitude of others: New Orleans blues singers, harmonica, washboard and slide guitar players... an orchestral chamber group in Moscow... a pair of rocking guitarists in Venezuela... a ukulele on the streets of Rio de Janeiro... a saxophone in front of a graffiti-sprayed warehouse in Pisa, Italy... a drummer on a tenement balcony in the Congo mixing beats with a conga player in Barcelona, Spain.
There are also moving performances of traditional music: from the freedom fighters of South Africa playing songs that helped topple apartheid, to the Zuni of New Mexico performing ancient drum songs of religious devotion. Along the way, the musicians interviewed again and again present the idea that music is a tool to promote peace.
In addition to audience acclaim on the festival circuit, critical reviews of the film have been universally positive. "Wanting a movie to end so you can run out and buy the soundtrack may not seem like huge endorsement, but in this case, it is," wrote Variety. "Playing for Change: Peace Through Music...is often so exhilarating, its...utopianism doesn't seem so implausible... Significantly, a lot of the musicians are not seen playing in their own homelands - sometimes by choice, sometimes by the choices of others."
Recording musicians in some of the poorest parts of the world inspired PFC to establish the Playing for Change Foundation, which aims to offer resources - including facilities, technology, musical instruments and education - to musicians and their communities. Set to open in January 2009 is the Foundation's first project, the Playing for Change Ntonga Music School in South Africa. The Foundation is also working with South African poet Lesego Rampolokenga to build the Mehlo Arts Center in Johannesburg. Among its fundraising efforts benefiting the Foundation, PFC brought together eight of the musicians from Playing for Change: Peace Through Music to perform and record at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival and, just this past November, held another benefit concert in Denver which raised close to $150,000. Funds from this event were used to complete construction on the Playing for Change Ntonga Music School.