Music producer Mark Johnson was walking the streets of Santa Monica, California when he heard a voice that changed his life. Johnson had recorded legends like Jackson Browne and Paul Simon, but that day it was the voice of street performer Roger Ridley, singing “Stand by Me,” that stopped him in his tracks. He now remembers it as the greatest voice he’s ever heard.
“I was a few blocks away from him but I ran over to watch his performance. He just had so much soul and perseverance in his voice,” says Johnson. The music producer went on to ask the man why he was playing on the street, when he had such an outstanding voice.
“’Cause, man, I’m in the joy business,” Ridley replied. “I come out to bring joy to the people.”
From then on, Mark Johnson made it his mission to unite diverse musicians from around the globe, to bring cultures together in joy and harmony. Thus, Playing For Change was born.
“Playing For Change is a movement of people around the world that are using the power of music to connect us together and to overcome our differences with inspiration and music,” says Johnson. Since 2004, Johnson has traveled the world, recording legendary performers and street musicians alike, in their natural environments, as they songs of support, like “Stand by Me” and “One Love.”
For some, that environment is a street corner in New Orleans. For others, it’s a village in the Netherlands, or a rural South African community. “You get all these different cultures from all over the world creating something together,” said Johnson.
He then produces those recordings into YouTube videos. The most popular Playing For Change video, “Stand by Me,” features Ridley and has garnered over 39 million views. It’s part of the award-winning documentary Playing For Change: Peace Through Music.
Johnson has also established the Playing For Change Foundation . Since 2008, the foundation has built eight music and art schools in developing countries across the world, reaching 600 children worldwide.
And the project is still evolving. Johnson plans to keep expanding this project, in order to build more schools, to film more musicians, and to include every country, as a representation of the global human family.
Now, many of the musicians who were in the Playing For Change videos have continued to be involved in the project, by coming together in the Playing For Change Band. Veteran New Orleans street musician Grandpa Elliott leads the ensemble, which blends styles from different continents into a new conglomeration of “world music.”
The eclectic ensemble is now touring North America in their Back to Your Roots tour, performing some Playing For Change favorites like “One Love,” and many unheard originals. “It’s a chance for people to get back to our roots as a planet and just to start to connect together,” Johnson says of the tour, which he calls a “celebration” of the power of music.
“They have so much love for each other that it just becomes the most powerful live performance you will ever see,” says Johnson. “Seven or eight different countries are represented on the stage, and they and the audience get to create this world together where there is hope, there is this magic, there is this great music. We’re not divided by our race, or our gender, or how much money we have, or our politics, or our religion. It really becomes tangible example of what this project’s about.”
Back to Your Roots 2012 Tour Dates:
February 12, Saint Paul, MN, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
February 16, Mississauga, ON, Canada, Living Arts Centre
February 19, Calgary, AB, Canada, MacEwan Centre
February 20, Calgary, AB, Canada, MacEwan Centre
February 22, Ann Arbor, MI, The Ark
February 23, Cedar Rapids, IA, CSPS
February 24, Indianapolis, IN, Clowes Memorial Hall
February 25, Chicago, IL, Old Town School of Folk Music
February 27, Columbus, OH, Lincoln Theater
February 28, Sellersville, PA, Sellersville Theater
February 29, Pittsburgh, PA, Byham Theater
March 1, New York, NY, The Concert Hall
March 2, Boston, MA, Berklee Performance Center
March 7, Annapolis, MD, Ramshead Onstage
March 9, Santa Cruz, CA, Rio Theatre
March 10, Napa, CA, Napa Valley Opera House
March 11, Folsom, CA, Three Stages
March 13, Arcata, CA, John Van Duzer Theatre
March 14, Chico, CA, Laxson Auditorium
March 15, Ashland, OR, Historic Ashland Armory
March 16, Olympia, WA, Washington Center for the Performing Arts
March 17, Port Angeles, WA, Little Theater