“Playing for Change” is a multi-media music project created by sound engineer Mark Johnson and dancer/choreographer Whitney Kroenke. Its purpose is to inspire, connect, and bring peace in the world through music. Here’s how it works.
In 2005 Johnson was walking the streets of Santa Monica, California when he heard Roger Ridley, a street singer, singing “Stand By Me.” Johnson was so taken aback by the “soul and conviction” in Ridley’s voice, he asked him, “With a voice like yours, why are you singing in the streets?”
Ridley replied, “Man, I’m in the joy business. I come out here to be with the people.”
Johnson asked him if he could come back with some cameras and recording equipment and record Ridley. Ridley agreed. Then Johnson traveled to other cities and recorded other street musicians—singers, drummers, guitarists, violinists, tambourine players, washboard players, and so forth. Eventually his project took him all over the world, recording singers and musicians performing some of the same songs. Back in his studio, he blended the recordings of each song into one whole performance.
The effect is amazing. As you listen to the songs, you witness Johnson’s claim: “Music has the power to break down walls between cultures and to raise the level of human understanding.” Hearing a woman in New York City harmonizing with a man in Ghana is awe-inspiring. And seeing children in West Los Angeles singing and dancing alongside children in Uganda and France is simply beautiful.
Johnson and Whitney also created the Playing for Change Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to building music and art schools for children all over the world. This foundation has built schools or established music programs in countries as diverse as South Africa, Nepal, Mali, Ghana, and Thailand.
I am offering you three of their songs here. The first one is “Stand by Me” (5:08 mins.) featuring Roger Ridley who has since passed away. The second song is “What a Wonderful World” (3:41 mins.) sung mainly by children from several different countries and a singer named Grandpa Elliot from New Orleans. And the third one is John Lennon’s “Imagine” (4:06 mins.) I’m sorry that the lyrics were not available on any of these recordings.
As you listen to one or more of these songs, let us recall some of Pope Francis’ major themes during his recent extraordinary visit to the United States: Let us stand by one another, especially those in need. Let us work to preserve our wonderful world for future generations. And let us imagine ways to make the dream of peace a reality through respectful dialogue with one another.
“Stand By Me”:
“What a Wonderful World”:
How did you feel as you listened to these songs?
Does music play a part in your personal daily life? in your spiritual life? in your prayer?
Can music really help to bring about world peace? Why or why not?