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Filmmaker Mark Johnson Connects People Around the World Through Music


The Playing for Change Band performed in Boston in October 2009

The Playing for Change Band performed in Boston in October 2009

Johnson's 'Playing for Change' music videos serve as inspiration to millions who have seen them on the Internet

On YouTube and other Internet-based social media channels, millions of people have seen the music video of Bob Marley's "One Love," produced by Mark Johnson. It begins with a guitarist sitting in a doorway in Italy. He's soon joined by a group of musicians playing under a tree in South Africa, and a tabla player sitting in the courtyard of a monastery in Nepal.

Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Before the song ends, musicians in Israel, Congo, India and Zimbabwe have all joined in. "One Love" is just one of several songs around the world produced by Mark Johnson for Playing for Change, the organization he co-created. "We just decided to look at a map," Johnson says, "pick locations far from each other and research the style of music that they play there and find ways to integrate them all together."

He did that with a small crew and a portable studio, recording and filming the sessions outside.

Inspiration in the subway

Before he started searching for musicians for Playing for Change, Johnson was a producer and engineer at a music studio in New York. At the subway one morning, he saw two musicians who had attracted a crowd of 200 people.

"I saw two monks painted all in white from head to toe both wearing robes. One of them was playing a nylon guitar and the other monk was singing in a language I didn't understand," Johnson recalls. "Nobody got on the train. A collection of people who normally run by each other, here they are coming together for music in a language they don't even understand."

Mark Johnson and Playing for Change film crew in New Orleans

Mark Johnson and Playing for Change film crew in New Orleans

Johnson had worked with a wide range of talented musicians, from Biggie Smalls to Paul Simon. He won a Grammy Award in 2005 working with Keb Mo, one of the musicians in the "One World" video. "When you are with these groups you realize how much passion they all have for music, but they don't necessarily come together," Johnson says. "I was searching for some way that can bring this all together. And I think those monks inspired me to realize that it is just moments in time everywhere."

In March 2005, Playing for Change recorded its first "moment in time." In the video a musician in Santa Monica, California, singing "Stand By Me," is joined through technology with musicians in New Orleans; Zuni, New Mexico, the Netherlands, Russia, France, Italy and South Africa. Since then, more than 100 musicians have been filmed and recorded in more than a dozen locations around the world.

"What we decided to do is unite all of these different musicians so people can see the power of cultures from all over the world uniting together for a common purpose," Johnson says.

Leaving a legacy

Two young students in Ntonga Music School in South Africa

Two young students in Ntonga Music School in South Africa

The idea is to inspire, but the videos, and a new CD, are only the beginning. Johnson says Playing for Change wanted to give back to the communities where their musicians came from. "What we would do is ask a lot of the musicians and their communities and their families how can we give back to you?" They often told him they needed music schools, "something to offer the kids hope."

In August 2009, Playing for Change began construction on the Bizung School of Music and Dance in Tamale, Ghana

In August 2009, Playing for Change began construction on the Bizung School of Music and Dance in Tamale, Ghana

Three schools have already been built: one in South Africa, one in Ghana and one in Nepal. And more are in the works. "We're building schools one at a time, but we are connecting them all together with recording equipment and cameras," Johnson says. The idea, he adds, is to get the kids from different continents to talk and play music together and to, "kind of break down the stereotypes and prejudices we build at a young age."

Johnson isn't relying on technology alone to spread the message of peace through music, which is the mission of Playing for Change. He's put together a band of musicians who are featured in the videos. They've recently toured the United States and Europe, and Johnson says they will, "keep on going around the world."

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