BUSKIN’ OUT Playing For Change

With a tour kicking off this week for The
PFC Band, Mark Johnson’s ongoing efforts to bring unknown street musicians to
the masses pick up steam.

 

BY NANCY DUNHAM

 

Almost a decade
ago, while en route to work at the legendary Hit Factory, Grammy Award-winning engineer/producer
Mark Johnson stopped in his tracks. Two monks, painted white from head to toe, were
singing in a New York City
subway station, accompanied only by the ragged notes of a nylon-string guitar. He
wasn’t alone. The monks had attracted an audience of hundreds, many of whom
were weeping.

 

“[We] were blown
away by the performance; the music was jaw-dropping,” says Johnson. “I realized
some of the best music I have ever heard in my life may have been in the street
or just in life outside the studio.”

 

That experience
returned to Johnson six years later when, on the opposite end of the country in
Santa Monica, he
saw a street musician singing Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” That’s when Johnson
decided to put his ideas into action. He gathered backers for Playing for
Change, a project that would take him around the world to record more than 100
unknown musicians from New Orleans to the Middle East. In April of 2009 he released the music in a CD/DVD
set aptly titled Playing For Change –
Songs Around the World
, raising money for such projects such as a music
school in Gugulethu, South Africa. This was followed a
few months later by the Playing For
Change – Peace Through Music
documentary. As it did that day in NYC, the
music resonated with many – to the tune of 30 million YouTube hits alone for a
“Stand By Me” video Johnson and his crew created.

 

Johnson
subsequently put together a group of musicians he dubbed The PFC Band and took
them to such disparate locales as Los Angeles, Vancouver, Madrid and Britain’s
Glastonbury Festival, documenting the tour for another CD/DVD combo, Playing For Change Live, just out via
the Concord Music Group and featuring guest performances from Keb’ Mo’,
Tinariwen, Toots Hibbert and Ziggy Marley. It’s a timely release, as The PFC
Band’s 2010 tour kicked off this week on June 14 and will run through July 18.

 

“This is an
amazing way to show people the power of music,” says Johnson. “It’s also a very
humbling experience to watch how people use music not just as a way to
entertain themselves but literally to survive.”

 

 

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