Opening day celebration for the Bizung School of Music and Dance in Tamale, Ghana, in 2010. Photo courtesy of Playing for Change.
Inspiration started with street musicians. Mark Johnson, a recording studio executive in New York City, was on his way to work when he saw a crowd gather around a few monks performing on the subway platform. Their business was creating joy, not just generating a profit.
“It occurred to me that the best music I had heard in my life was not in the studio, it was on the way to the studio,” he said.
The connection that strangers from all walks of life felt from a simple subway performance gave him an idea. Johnson believed that music was the one thing that every culture, every country around the world could appreciate and understand. That idea started a documentary called “Playing for Change,” a conglomeration of street musicians of different musical backgrounds and styles from around the world performing standards like “Stand by Me.”
The video of “Stand by Me” ended up on YouTube and went viral, with more than 40 million views to date, launching new careers for some of its participants. Clarence Bekker was one of those musicians, discovered while playing on the streets of Barcelona. The soul singer with an Otis Redding-inspired voice was in the first video, and then performed at the first Tribeca New Music Festival in 2008.
“In my first career I couldn’t get anyone in America to say hi to me,” he joked. “Now I’m standing on the streets and they’re calling me to come to America.”
Playing for Change sells records from their artists, who play tours around the world. The artists earn equity and royalties from their recordings. For Bekker, it’s meant a chance to travel and bring his music to more people; the group is helping him release an album this year. But for the audience members, it offers a change in how they view “world music,” said Johnson.
“World music used to just be anything that wasn’t American or English,” he said. “World music should be the world playing music together.”
As the crew traveled around the world collecting songs for the documentary, they were invited into the musicians’ homes and lives. The project then added a second side to its mission: getting the world to create music.
Johnson said that while Playing for Change was traveling around the world recording street artists, it also was building a network of communities that needed a little inspiration. So the organization started working with communities in countries such as South Africa, Nepal, Rwanda, Mali and Ghana to build music schools and provide instruments to children.
“Music has been a savior for me but I don’t have anyone to teach me,” said Bekker. “You can love it, but you need an education.”
The group helped establish seven programs with 600 students worldwide, Johnson said, adding he hopes there will be more. Proceeds from Playing for Change records and charity concerts go to supporting these schools and building others, something musicians like Bekker see as leaving a valuable legacy.
“You don’t have to be talented. You don’t have to be the best. It just has to come from heart. Music is a great tool to elevate children’s soul, with that they can pass on to the world,” said Bekker.