The subject of a PBS documentary and stunning video Stand By Me — Playing For Change Band is an extraordinary assembly of street musicians — the kind that stop you in the street because you can’t help but listen. Originally gathered together by Producer Mark Johnson as a project for world peace, it is now a traveling ensemble that offers a fervent delivery of blues, gospel, reggae, and Afropop.
Playing for Change will perform in Three Stages on Sunday, March 11
Three Stages Executive Director Dave Pier notes, “Up from one video that has been viewed by millions has come two films, two CDs, a non-profit foundation and the involvement of musicians from Bono to Baaba Maal, as well as the fine ensemble of musicians who are touring the world and who will perform at Three Stages. It’s a lovely project.”
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 10 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 more than 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.
From these efforts came a top notch touring band. Musicians performing at Three Stages on March 11 include Clarence Bekker (Amsterdam, Netherlands) – vocals, acoustic guitar; Grandpa Elliott (New Orleans, Louisiana) – vocals, harmonica; Jason Tamba (Matadi, Congo) – vocals, guitar; Mermans Mosengo (Kinshasa, Congo) – vocals; Tom Canning (Los Angeles, California) – keyboards; Peter Bunetta (Los Angeles, California) – drums; Renard Poche (New Orleans, Louisiana) – lead guitar; Reggie McBride (Detroit, Michigan) – bass guitar; Louis Mhlanga (Zimbabwe) – flying guitar and Titi Tsira (Guguletu, South Africa) – vocals.
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. In spring of 2009 the foundation’s first project, the Playing for Change Ntonga Music School, opened in South Africa. Six other schools have opened or are in development.
Playing for Change performs at 2 p.m on Sunday, March 11. Tickets are $17-$25 with premium tickets available for $29; student tickets are available for $12 (student ID required at the door). Tickets are available online at www.threestages.net or from Three Stages Ticket Office at (916) 608-6888 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and two hours before show time. Three Stages is located on the west side of Folsom Lake College campus in Folsom, facing East Bidwell Street.