A trip around the world with Playing for Change

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jeremy GoulderThe Playing for Change band makes its Aspen debut Saturday at Belly Up Aspen.

ASPEN – Twelve years ago, Mark Johnson was on his way to a recording session at the Hit Factory, a famed New York City studio that had been the site of sessions by Bruce Springsteen, 50 Cent, Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett. Nearing the studio, at the Union Square subway station, Johnson was stopped by the sight of two musicians, painted head to toe in white; by the music they played on a nylon string guitar; and by the reaction to this unusual scene.

“It was this phenomenon – no one got on the train. People stopped in their tracks,” Johnson said from his home in Santa Monica. “I got to the studio and realized that the best music I’d ever heard wasn’t made in the studio; it was made on the street.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to bring the studio to the people.”

That idea solidified when Johnson, traveling to Los Angeles to record with Jackson Browne, saw a street performer named Roger Ridley. Johnson asked Ridley, who died in 2005, if he could film him in action.

That was the birth of Playing for Change, a multi-faceted project founded on the idea that there is no better vehicle for uniting people than music. One of the group’s arms – the Playing for Change Band, which is in it second tour of the U.S. – makes its debut Saturday at Belly Up. The eight-member band features musicians from New Orleans, Detroit and Los Angeles, the Netherlands, and several African countries.

The first Playing for Change project was a film, “Playing for Change: A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians,” which was made in various U.S. locales. A second film, “Peace Through Music,” went global, with episodes shot on streets and in small clubs in a variety of countries.

Just how powerful a street singer’s voice – and why Roger Ridley was known by his fellow street performers as “The Voice of God” – was made clear with the “Stand By Me” segment from “Peace Through Music.” The clip was aired on the PBS program “Bill Moyers Journal,” and quickly became a Youtube hit. The clip features numerous musicians, in settings from African alleyways and American streets to Indian reservations and European plazas, singing Ben E. King’s inspirational “Stand By Me.”

In 2007, Johnson created the Playing for Change Foundation, which has built seven music schools around the world. Last year, at the school in Capetown, Titi Tsira, a South African singer, was invited to appear with the Playing for Change band; that performance led to an invitation to become part of the group.

Tsira appears on “Playing for Change Live,” a new CD/DVD package that features her on the a love song that she wrote, “Fela Ngaye.” “Playing for Change Live” also features versions of Bob Marley’s “One Love” and Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and guest appearances by Ziggy Marley (singing his own “Love Is My Religion”), Toots Hibbert (covering Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”), and Keb’ Mo’.

Tsira had always seen a connection between music and positive social change. Among her career achievements was performing at the All Nations Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

“This was a movement I’d love to be involved with,” Tsira, who appears tonight at Belly Up, said of Playing for Change. “Musicians collaborating – that’s something I love. You actually learn about the next musician, and that’s what Playing for Change is about – connecting the different countries with music.”

Tsira said that singing with Playing for Change is a different experience than being in bands with all South Africans, as she has done in the past.

“It’s totally different,” she said. “It’s different musicians from different countries. We’re dealing with different rhythms, different backgrounds. This is all different types of music thrown into one basket, and then doing something with it.

“You can take the crowd around the world. One singer will take you to South Africa, the next will take you to Ghana, then to Senegal. It’s a trip.”