Playing For Change: Bridging the Gap Between Street Music and the Internet

 
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“A decade ago a small group of documentary filmmakers set out with a dream to create a film rooted in the music of the streets.” – Playing For Change

Playing for Change is a global multimedia movement that connects and empowers musicians. Over the past decade, the crew of filmmakers have travelled to more than 40 different locations spanning five continents filming and recording musicians. PFC (Playing for Change) has produced over 80 collaborative projects, and has created the Playing For Change Foundation, a foundation “dedicated to creating positive social change through music education”.

 Japanese Shamisen Player Mr. Hiro

 Japanese Shamisen Player Mr. Hiro

I first experienced PFC’s content a couple months ago while chilling at the Cypher League Studio in DC. Cypher League producer Mark Cho showed me this PFC project, where musicians from all corners of the world collaborate on a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. The video starts off with a Japanese Shamisen player strumming his instrument in a rock garden, then travels to various musicians in Europe, Jamaica, the United States, Canada, Africa, and India.

Two things immediately struck me while watching this video; the flawlessness of the collaboration and the magnitude of this project. PFC and the musicians didn’t let any limitations or boundaries get in the way of their goals and vision. It didn’t matter to them that there were over 10 musicians from all different corners of the world collaborating on the same song; they strapped up with their cool unique instruments and produced a beautiful and technically amazing project. Spend a minute and really think about how much time and effort it would take to execute a project like this…and PFC has done it multiple times. It was their “thinking outside the box” mentality that really caught my attention.

I wanted to get the insider story, so I reached out to them and was fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to conduct a written interview with Mark Johnson, the Co-Founder of Playing For Change. I encourage you to keep reading for some enthralling insight into the entire PFC project and the positive changes it brought about.

How did Playing for Change come to be (the birth of the idea)?

Mark: A Native American Musician once asked me why I wanted to start Playing For Change.  I responded by saying:

“We live in a world that walks over homeless people on our way to work like they don’t exist, we have way too many starving children and warring nations.  What is there to remind us of the power of the human spirit? As a human race we come together for birth and we come together for death, but what brings us together in between is up to us.  Stop and listen to the universal language of music and bring that positive energy with you everywhere you go…”

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About 10 years ago I had an experience in NYC that opened my eyes to the power of music. I was on my way to work at a recording studio in NYC and I was in the subway station when I witnessed two monks painted all in white wearing robes and one of them was playing a nylon acoustic guitar while the other monk was singing in a language I didn’t understand.  I witnessed a subway platform full of people as no one got on the train and everyone was listening to this amazing music.  Some people were smiling while others were crying but everyone was connected through this music. I got on the train and headed to work and I thought to myself the greatest music I had ever heard was on the way to the studio and not in the studio.  I realized great music and art are just moments in time and they exist everywhere.  We can use the energy from these moments to connect people.

This was the birth of the idea to bring the studio to the musicians in their natural environments all over the world.

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In order to truly unite and inspire the whole world we need to include as many different cultures, races, religions, political views and economic status as possible in our project.  We realized we could connect all these different groups with Songs around the world such as Stand By Me. This vision was the birth of the global movement that is Playing For Change.

What were some of the biggest challenges in growing this movement?

Mark:The challenges that we face building and growing the PFC movement turn into part of our daily life and we take it one step at a time.  As someone once told me, “The journey is the destination”.  We make sure we remain humble and do our best to learn about various cultures around the world and find out how they create their identity and sense of self so we can truly collaborate.  Music is a great source of pride in every community we have visited and we use music to build a foundation of trust and a global family, one heart and one song at a time.

PFC has done work in over 40 locations across the globe, but only employs one small film crew. How does that work, they must be a very busy team!

Mark: A small crew and myself (Enzo Buono, Jonathan Walls, Kevin Krupitzer and Raan Williams) put together cameras and a mobile recording studio about 7 years ago powered with golf cart batteries, then car batteries and eventually small battery packs and traveled from city streets and subways to Indian Reservations, African Villages and Townships to the Middle East and the Himalayan Mountains. We have been incredibly busy and are just now finishing our next album of Songs Around the World, “PFC 3” (They take about 2 years to make each album CD/DVD of 10 tracks and average 15 countries and approx. 100 musicians per album).

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Can you give us a description of these ‘mobile studios?’ What are these ‘mobile studios’ made of?

Mark: When I was younger working as a recording engineer I decided to take some of the same equipment we use to record Paul Simon and other great artists into the streets.  Originally I used golf cart batteries and a power inverter to power the remote studio and now I can use small battery packs to power our equipment.  With this mobile addition to the studio we have the ability to record anywhere in the world without any power. We use Hi Fidelity microphones and years of experience in the fiend to make the best recordings we can.

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How do you choose the video’s locations?

Mark: Each of our 3 PFC CD/DVD’s of Songs Around The World takes on different shapes and musical directions. Our First album started with “Stand By Me” and “One Love” and traveled from Native Indian Reservations to New Orleans, South African Townships, the streets of Europe and into the Himalayan Mountains to structure the diversity of musicians and sounds.

For PFC 2 “Songs Around The World” we started our recordings in West Africa — Mali and Senegal and then worked to combine musicians that had been separated through the slave trade and eventually created the American blues style.  Of course all the recordings have a fluid path and we don’t focus on any primary style or direction but let the music tell us what it wants.

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For our new album, PFC 3 we have featured musicians from the Congo and Morocco and these incredibly deep musical cultures have taken all of our songs to another level.  We have also traveled throughout Europe adding Gypsy musicians and into the Caribbean and eventually Argentina and the Favelas of Brazil.  Not to mention recordings across Mexico from Vera Cruz to Guadalajara.  PFC 3 will be out soon, late 2013 or early 2014.

How were the artists in the videos sought? Did you take submissions or did you contact artists you had previously worked with?

Mark:  The truth is that most of the musicians in our videos we met in the field while traveling from town to town. We hire a local musician as a guide to help us spread the word about PFC and then are spreads from one person to the next.  Fortunately there are great musicians everywhere. It is a very grass roots project.

Twin Eagle Drum Group

Grandpa Elliot is quite the character and musician. Who is he? How did you find him?

 Grandpa Elliot at the 2013 Australia Tour

Mark:  Grandpa Elliott is one of my heroes as a musician.  When he performs he gives the music and shows so much soul and conviction.  He has been playing on the streets of New Orleans for over 60 years.  His life has been devoted to his music and the city of New Orleans and now he takes that magic with him all over the world touring with the Playing For Change Band.  We just finished a PFC Band Tour in Australia performing at the Byron Bay blues Festival for over 10,000 people and opening stadium shows for Robert Plant.  Whenever Grandpa Elliott walks on the stage the crowds treat him like Elvis, with huge standing ovations.  He is a Blind Man but he can feel all of the love from all over the world.

How were the songs selected? What were the criteria, if any, in choosing those songs to record?

Mark: We always are working on various songs around the world at the same time and we try to keep them diverse so we can always find ways to include whatever we come across in our journey.  We combine songs that serve to connect such as “Stand By Me” with songs that serve to inspire us to move forward such as “War No More Trouble”.  We also create a lot of original songs around the world such as “Chanda Mama”, “Don’t Worry” and “Music is my ammunition”.

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PFC has become a movement. Artists and musicians are now able to participate in PFC’s movement and hold events of their own. I believe that it’s always been PFC’s goal to become a movement, but can you take us through how it’s transformed into one? What does the movement stand for? What do you wish to accomplish?

Mark: PFC becomes a movement because of the reaction and support of the musicians and people all over the world.  Our songs around the world videos have been viewed over 150 million times in approx 195 countries.  As we travel we see the faces of the people we meet and the look in the eyes of all the people who believe that we need to come together as human race and music is one of our greatest tools to achieve this goal. This deep human connection is the backbone of the PFC movement. The true measure of any movement is what does it give back to the people, and this is why we created the PFC Foundation, a non profit organization that builds music and art schools around the world. We currently support 8 programs and this is just the beginning.  Movements must evolve and grow and there is no shortage of musicians to record, countries to visit and schools to build.

“This deep human connection is the backbone of the PFC movement.”

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What is the Playing for Change Foundation?

Mark: As we traveled the world the musicians and the communities we were visiting invited us into their homes, played us their music, and shared with us their stories. We knew we wanted to give back and that is why we set up the Playing For Change Foundation. We asked the communities we were visiting what we can do to give back and help them leave each location better than we found it.  We learned that all over the world there is a need for music schools to offer the children, the future of our planet hope. We have since created the Playing For Change Foundation (501 c3), building music and dance schools around the world.

When was the PFC Foundation created? What inspired you to do so?

Mark: The PFC Foundation was created in 2008 as a separate non-profit 501 c3 so we could collaborate with the communities we visit throughout our travels and work towards building or enhancing music programs for the youth all over the world.  Our idea is to create an immediate change in places we visit and offer hope and inspiration to the youth who otherwise have very little opportunity in their lives.  We also connect our music programs together so that children in Africa can meet children in Asia and exchange music, interviews and a bit about their culture.  This connection offers opportunities for stereotypes and prejudice to disappear due to the context of music and the love it spreads to everyone who listens.

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In your opinion, what has been the Foundation’s biggest accomplishment? Have you experienced positive progress in the Foundation’s programs?

Mark: Keb’ Mo’ once said to me, “the important thing in life is to create inspiration and let it take care of itself…” I believe this is the case with the PFC Foundation. Perhaps one of our students in Gugulethu, South Africa could have gone on to be in a street gang without the opportunities provided at our music school and now perhaps they become the next Nelson Mandela or Miriam Makeba. All of our schools are free of charge to all the students and they not only provide music but also foreign language studies and life skills classes to avoid drugs and violence.  I have witnessed first hand the incredible difference our schools are making within each of the communities we have partnered with and I know that true positive change and connections exist everyday.

 Students posing in front of a music school

Can you give us a peak into some of your future plans?

Mark: Currently we are focusing on completing PFC 3, 10 new Songs Around The World. We are also developing a brand new website to serve as the central home of Playing For Change (playingforchange.com). This new website will offer hundreds of new videos and a global marketplace as well as many new ways for people everywhere to get involved in the Playing For Change movement. It will launch this summer.

We will continue to tour the PFC Band, consisting of some of the greatest musicians we have met throughout our travels. The PFC Band is 11 musicians from 8 different countries. They serve as a tangible example of what happens when the world transcends its differences and creates music together. World music is when the world plays music together.  Each performer brings his or her own culture, history and language to the music and this collaboration becomes something new and exciting for everyone who comes to a PFC concert.

Thank you for your time Mark. Would you like to say any last words?

Mark: We will continue to grow the PFC project across the globe and show the world that no matter how many things in life divide us, they are never as strong as the things that bring us together. This is the power of music.

One Love, Mark

 Mark Johnson

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Tetsu Hiro