No doubt many of you have come across one or more of the fabulous videos put out by an organization called Playing for Change, in which musicians from all over the world collaborate in real time performing a popular song, each bringing his or her own sound to the track, be it sitar from India, a bottleneck guitarist in a small Italian town, percussionists in Africa and New Orleans, oud players from the Middle East, singers from everywhere. It’s quite an astonishing concept, which requires incredible logistical coordination, yet the execution is always, without fail, incredibly great. It really shows what a universal language music is. This is truly WORLD MUSIC!
According to Playing for Change’s co-founder, Grammy-winning producer and engineer Mark Johnson, “Playing for Change is a movement uniting and connecting people all over the world through music. And in order to do that, you need to do it in different ways, so we create songs around the world, videos where all these musicians from different countries who never met play songs together. Those go online, and that kind of becomes a viral and a digital way for people to see the world. Then we realize that this doesn’t mean anything if we don’t give back to the people. So we created the Playing for Change foundation ten years ago, and we build music and art schools all over the world, and then we connect all those kids together like the videos. Kids in America meet kids in West African and they see it’s the home of the blues, not the home of Ebola. We get to reinvent how people see the world through the lens of music. Instead of showing people with guns, we show people with guitars. Playing for Change is about opening up how people see the world through the lens of music and art. We had the for-profit business that supports grown-up musicians, and a non-profit that supports children. And all our schools are free and the communities run them, so they all have the culture of where they’re from. We have 15 schools now.”
Hawaiian players and singers have featured in a few, including Playing for Change’s latest triumph, a stirring version of Robbie Robertson’s beloved 1968 anthem “The Weight,” written for The Band’s first album, Music from Big Pink. Among the globe-spanning musicians this time ’round is none other than Hawaiian uke sensation Taimane Gardner, captured in the wild (so to speak) and adding some wonderfully tasteful licks to the track.
When we asked Taimane how she became involved in the project, she replied, “I had a show at The Mint in Los Angeles in 2017, and my manager dragged me and my band across town between sound check and the show to meet Mark Johnson. My manager and Mark knew each other from an album they worked on together. L.A. traffic is notoriously bad, and I was worried whether we had enough time. My manager insisted. So, we jumped in the car and raced over to Venice. After a fun jam session with some other musicians at his house, Mark Johnson reached out about recording some of my own songs and the part for ‘The Weight.’ He’s a super nice guy and very humble and gentle.
“I think I was one of the first artists they recorded. Most of the parts in my headphones were scratch/demo tracks. Playing for Change had recorded demo version that was used for the first musicians on the song.”
What was the actual taping session like? “The day of the shoot went really smoothly. We shot at Kualoa Ranch [on the island of Oahu] which is a famous location for movies and music videos: Jurassic Park, 50 First Dates, Battleship. etc. The rehearsing was about three weeks of me practicing with the demo track. And then it was time to record it on site with them!
“I was so excited to hear I’d be a part of this special project! The ukulele and Playing For Change are a perfect fit together. They both support ‘peace through music’; uniting the world through music: one world, one people.”
Check it out; I’m certain you’ll dig it! And if you’d like to check out some of the other Playing for Change videos: All Along the Watchtower, Ripple, One Love, Gimme Shelter, and there are many others easily found on YouTube (just type in “Playing for Change”). —Blair Jackson