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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Musicians play for change, and peace

By David Shapiro

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Musician Roger Ridley launches the international recording of "Stand By Me" from Santa Monica, Calif. Other musicians from the U.S. and across the globe picked it up from there.


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Selected songs link performers from around the world

You can blow out a candle

But you can't blow out a fire

Once the flames begin to catch

The wind will blow it higher

Peter Gabriel

The Bush years had their downside, but they gave new life to my music collection, providing an excuse to haul out all of my 1960s anti-war tunes and hear them like they were new again.

I ain'ta gonna study war no more, my brothers and sisters!

But now that President Barack Obama is winding down the war in Iraq (kind of) and ending the torture (sort of), it's more difficult to get into the old protest music with the same full-throated enthusiasm.

Fortunately, I've found a new way to stoke my social conscience through the power of music: Playing For Change, an ingenious effort by some young filmmakers to bring together more than 100 musicians from five continents in common song.

What started out as a cool idea became a four-year journey that morphed into an international movement for peace and redevelopment that has spawned viral videos on the Internet, a CD and DVD, a concert tour and a documentary.

Underlying it all is some truly remarkable music that I find myself listening to over and over. My 5-year-old granddaughter is as captivated by it as I am.

Mark Johnson and his crew traveled the world filming and recording musicians from different cultures performing the same material in their own style, then spliced it all together.

There are a few well-known musicians like Bono from U2 and bluesman Keb' Mo' on a couple of the tracks, but mostly it's just locals with a lot of talent.

It started in March 2005 when Johnson heard street musician Roger Ridley performing "Stand By Me" in Santa Monica, Calif., and was so moved that he and his crew recorded Ridley and embarked on a four-year quest to add other voices to the song.

A second lead vocalist on "Stand By Me," New Orleans legend Grandpa Elliott, was recorded in September 2006 and Clarence Bekker of the Netherlands added his vocals in February 2007.

In all, 35 musicians contributed to "Stand By Me" a choir from South Africa; percussionists from an American Indian tribe, the Congo, Spain and Brazil; guitarists from Italy and Venezuela; string players from Russia, South Africa and the United States; and a saxophonist from Italy.

The crew pressed into the heart of Africa, Ireland, France, the Middle East, India and Nepal to find collaborating musicians for standout performances of Bob Marley's "One Love" and "War/No More Trouble," Peter Gabriel's "Biko," the Indian folk song "Chanda Mamma" and the original "Don't Worry."

Giving a common thread to several of the performances are the Sinamuva choir from South Africa, which sings in Zulu, the Oneness Choir from India and The Omagh Community Youth Choir from Northern Ireland.

Playing For Change has been so successful that a nonprofit corporation was formed to return resources to the participating musicians and their communities some of which are impoverished and a commercial partnership was formed with Norman Lear's Concord Music Group.

A live band of Playing For Change musicians did a spring tour; most band members met each other for the first time the day of the first concert.

The group offers decent-quality videos of most of "Songs Around the World" for free viewing at www.playingforchange.com, or you can get the CD/DVD combo with high quality audio and video for for $13.95 from the Web site or any Starbucks.