November 24, 2009
It starts out innocently enough. You get one of those "viral" emails from a friend who got it from another and passed it on to a specific group on her contact list of which you were a part. It happens all the time. What’s the big deal?
Well, normally, nothing. However, in mid-April when you opened the email-in-question and played the attached music video, an obsession began to take root. In this particular instance, the virus was highly infectious and you caught it. What’s a guy to do? Well, pass it on, of course.
The video, one of many now released under the umbrella of the peace-through-music movement Playing for Change, opens with a scene from one of my old stomping grounds, Venice Beach, California. Roger Ridley, a street musician who has since passed away, is accompanying himself on guitar as he sings the quite-moving opening stanza to "Stand by Me," a Ben E. King R&B crossover smash from the early ’60s.
The scene then shifts to Jackson Park in the French Quarter of New Orleans, another familiar landscape from my misspent youth. There, the second verse of the song is taken by the gray-haired and bearded Grandpa Elliott, a blind French Quarter street singer and harmonica player whose soulful enthusiasm has since made him a worldwide musical icon.
Before the song has come to an end, the video camera has journeyed around the globe for collaborations, on this song alone, with more than 35 additional musicians. Vocalist Clarence Bekker from the Netherlands and alto-saxophonist Stefano Tomaselli from Italy are only two of the standouts.
"The idea came about ten years ago," Playing For Change documentary co-founder Mark Johnson related to the host on PBS’s "Bill Moyers Journal." "On this particular day, I was in the subway and I heard these two monks playing music."
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The fact that they were painted white head-to-toe, wearing robes, and singing in a language no one seemed to understand, didn’t keep 200 strangers, who normally "didn’t even have enough time to be disdainful," as Kerouac would say, from gathering and blowing off their morning schedule in order to stick around and dig that crazy beat.
Johnson was inspired and impressed. What he had witnessed told him that, in essence, there was no separation between music and people. His rapture over the collective bliss brought on by the obvious communicative power of street musicians, or "buskers," as they are known in the vernacular, taught him to never travel without recording equipment.
The hits, available on http://www.playingforchange.com , just kept on-a-comin’. Episode 3, the Bob Marley classic "One Love," adds Zimbabwe, Nepal, India, and Israel, to the mix. Both Irelands would come later. "One Love" is where Tula, an Israeli now living in Barcelona, makes her debut. Let me just say that she is as engrossing and captivating a performer as I have ever seen.
To build these musical monuments, Johnson and his crew have each artist fill in his/her part of whatever song is being assembled while wearing earphones and listening to the rest of the band as if they were all in a recording studio rather than thousands of miles apart, as they actually are. Then they mix and edit the results into short musical documentaries.
Words don’t really help much in attempting to capture the magic of Playing For Change. Watching the various episodes online or from one of the DVDs gets you much closer to the heart of the vibe. But be careful; it might change your life.
After spending just a short amount of time within that very special PFC aura, a friend and I found ourselves on the corner of Toulouse and Rue Royal in the French Quarter last spring hanging with Grandpa Elliott himself. And, a couple of weeks back, there we were down front at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe bathing in the glow of Grandpa and Clarence and rest of the 10-piece PFC touring band.
The L.A. Times referred to the street musicians within the PFC movement as "a confederacy of optimistic buskers." They truly believe that global peace and understanding can come through the sharing of music that people can indeed be brought together. And, after witnessing the resultant jubilation on the streets of New Orleans and in the Santa Fe Concert Hall, I might have to agree.
Mark Johnson put it this way: "You know, a lot of people are living in a world of fear. But we don’t even know how long we’re going to be in this world. So there’s really no reason to fear anything. The most important thing is while we’re here, let’s make a difference together. That’s what Playing for Change is trying to represent."
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.