Playing for change

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Article Reviews
Various Artists (Hear Music, 2009)

And they do mean various! This CD/DVD release includes artists from India to Ireland, South Africa to Russia, Israel to California, and practically all points in between. There is even a posthumous appearance from reggae prophet Bob Marley. Some of the Playing for Change musicians are famous (Bono of U2) or semi-famous (American bluesman Keb Mo). Others are barely known outside their hometowns. They are all united by producer Mark Johnson's vision of music as a unifying force for peace and progress.

Most of these musicians never met during the recording. Johnson filmed and recorded them in their home environments, usually outdoors in the countryside or on the streets. He then wove the pieces together into a tapestry of genuinely global music. Johnson says he got the idea for the project when he encountered a group of Asian monks singing in a New York subway station while 200 New Yorkers watched and listened-and even missed their trains.

The roots of world popular music are African, and the children of Africa and its diaspora carry most of the load on Playing for Change. In fact, reggae rhythms are really the glue holding this production together. So it is appropriate that two Marley tunes are included, "War/No More Trouble" and "One Love," an anthem of spiritual unity on which a Nepalese sitarist trades licks with a steel guitar player.

One of Johnson's great unknowns is Roger Ridley, an L.A. street singer who kicks off the album by leading a worldwide sing-along of Ben E. King's classic "Stand By Me." The song started as a boy-girl love song. But here it becomes a moving statement of human solidarity.

The profits for the various Playing for Change projects are going to fund the construction of centers for music and education in impoverished corners of the world. The first one, the Ntonga Music School, is already up and running in South Africa.