'Playing For Change' And Peace Through Music Until a video of "Stand by Me" had gone viral on YouTube, Roger Ridley had sung and played guitar anonymously on the streets for years. A new collection, Playing for Change: Songs Around the World, is a cross-continental effort that connects disparate cultures with the universal language of music.
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'Playing For Change' And Peace Through Music

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'Playing For Change' And Peace Through Music

'Playing For Change' And Peace Through Music

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Here's a new version of a classic R & B Tune.

(Soundbite of song, "Stand By Me")

Mr. ROGER RIDLEY (Singer): (Singing) No matter who you are, no matter where you go in life, you're going to need somebody to stand by you.

MONTAGNE: That's Roger Ridley signing on the streets of Santa Monica, California, as he had done, more or less anonymously, for years until a video of the song "Stand By Me" went viral on YouTube.

This version begins with Roger Ridley and then mixes in nearly 40 other musicians. They all perform separately in different countries. Producer Mark Johnson got the idea a few years ago and then traveled across four continents, recording and filming, leading to a collection of ten songs called "Playing For Change: Songs Around the World." He joins us in our studios here in Culver City, NPR West, good morning.

Mr. MARK JOHNSON (Producer, "Playing For Change: Songs Around the World"): Hey, good morning.

MONTAGNE: You know, Roger Ridley, I have watched him many times, 'cause he performs only several blocks from where I live.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

MONTAGNE: At least at the beginning of the video, you see you piecing together what is a very mobile studio. It looks like just a couple of mics…

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: …tape recorder.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right. So I was walking in the streets in Santa Monica, California, maybe I was three blocks away and I heard Roger's voice. It was so powerful. So I ran over to watch the performance. He was signing "Stand By Me." And then I approached him after his performance and I said - hey, if come back in an hour with some recording equipment and cameras, I'd love to record you, film you, add musicians around the world to it. And you know, he looked at me really funny - sort of thought I was crazy. But he said, okay, if you come back, we'll do it.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we play a little more of that? As it progresses, you'll start hearing different instruments and different voices.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GRANDPA ELLIOT (Singer): (Singing) When the night has come and the land is dark…

MONTAGNE: We're also hearing the voice of Grandpa Elliot.

JOHNSON: Yeah, he is a - sort of a staple on the streets in New Orleans. He's been playing on the street since he was six years old. You know, in New Orleans, it's interesting, because a lot of the best musicians play on the streets. And so Grandpa is known by everybody in New Orleans as just one of the greatest musicians and sort of an icon of New Orleans music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RIDLEY and Mr. ELLIOT: (Singing) So darling, darling stand…


MONTAGNE: Ah, you've moved to South Africa.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, there's the Zulu Choir.

(Soundbite of music)

SOUTH AFRICAN ZULU CHOIR: (Singing) Da-da-da-ah…

Mr. JOHNSON: We thought they were going to actually sing in English, then when we got there, they had rehearsed everything in Zulu. We thought, okay, well that's a much better idea.

MONTAGNE: And at any moment this changes and you hear new instruments, you hear new voices. I thought maybe when I first saw this on YouTube that you had cut it all together.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

MONTAGNE: Is there any point at which these musicians hear each other?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes, it would start with Roger, and then I would go to New Orleans and put headphones on Grandpa and he would hear Roger singing and playing and he would play along. And then I would go to the Zuni Indian Reservation out in the desert, put headphones on ten Indians around a drum and they would hear Roger and Grandpa together.

MONTAGNE: And that was the Twin Eagle Drum Group.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

MONTAGNE: And I do remember that it looked like one of the leaders was standing there with headphones.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

MONTAGNE: So on and on and on through the whole song?

Mr. JOHNSON: About 37 musicians that never met around the world.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, 'cause we've - many years we've seen musicians brought together from around the world. This is really people not coming together physically, but coming together literally through the music.

Mr. JOHNSON: And also all outside in places that inspired them.

MONTAGNE: Was there any one of these that were just particularly difficult to either get to, get at, you know, record in. I sometimes thought some of the straight up and down the street ones you would have people crowding around that would wreck what you were trying to do.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, you know, for a while I was using golf cart batteries or car batteries to power the equipment, so some of the problems came when we would get to the Himalayan Mountains and we would bring a car battery that we thought was charged up to the Himalayan Mountains, get up there, and realize that it wasn't. So there was some difficulties like that, or all the wind, you know, wind storms, but at the same time it was all a very natural process.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Bob Marley…

Mr. JOHNSON: Bob Marley.

MONTAGNE: …shows up - the real - the one and only shows up on one song, "War/ No More Trouble."

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

MONTAGNE: Which is a little bit touching I must say.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BOB MARLEY (Singer, songwriter): (Singing) Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior.

Mr. JOHNSON: Bob Marley had performed "War/No More Trouble" at the Rainbow Theatre in London, so what we did is recorded our version and filmed our version at the same key and tempo as Bob Marley's performance, so that we could add Bob Marley to the track.

(Soundbite of music)

GROUP: (Singing) We don't need no more trouble. We don't need no more trouble. We don't need no more trouble…

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, after we were - we started out with "Stand By Me." We realized, you know, it's a really positive song for everybody to sing. But as you start to travel around the world and you go into certain ghettos and certain conflict regions, you realize that things aren't always so great everywhere. And we were in Soweto, South Africa when we first started the project and there were two guys that were watching us. We were recording some music on the streets and I approached them.

I thought they were with our crew, and I brought them an iPod video to show them "Stand By Me" - where it was at the time. And they looked at me funny, and they watch the video. And they get excited and they give it back. And my friends comes over to me, and he says, you know, just so you know, those were the gangsters. And normally, they would take…

MONTAGNE: They wouldn't give you the iPod back.

Mr. JOHNSON: Normally they would take your iPod and rob you, but when they saw what you guys are doing, they told me to tell you they've got your back while you're here. So we found that even in dangerous spots, because our intentions were to connect people through music, we were able to be protected and kind of create a family in places that may have otherwise been more difficult.

MONTAGNE: Which could bring us to the last song on this CD, which is a tune - well, "A Change Is Gonna Come."

Mr. JOHNSON: "A Change Is Gonna Come" which was an amazing moment for all of us with "Playing For Change." It was the first time that we'd ever brought these musicians together to perform. So they'd all met each other through the videos, and had fallen in love with each other, but they'd never met in person. And in "A Change is Gonna Come" we had brought Grandpa Elliot, and Clarence Becker, they were two of the singers in "Stand By Me" together for a performance in New Orleans. And this is a live performance of them on the stage for the first time ever.

(Soundbite of song, "A Change Is Gonna Come")

Mr. CLARENCE BECKER (Singer): (Singing) I was born by the river in this little old town. Just like this river, I've been running ever since. It's been a long time coming. I know change is gonna come. Oh, yes it is.

MONTAGNE: That's the voice of Clarence Becker on "A Change Is Gonna Come." Mark Johnson produced "Playing For Change: Songs Around the World." Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me.

MONTAGNE: And you can see video of several other musicians performing on that "Playing For Change" album at our website, npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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