Street Musicians Form Global Band, 'Playing For Change' They're street musicians who'd already been playing for change in different cities across the globe. Then a Grammy-winning producer gathered and recorded each of them and crafted a layered piece of music that became a YouTube hit. And the multinational band "Playing for Change" was born.
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Street Musicians Form Global Band, 'Playing For Change'

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Street Musicians Form Global Band, 'Playing For Change'

Street Musicians Form Global Band, 'Playing For Change'

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away, so I am very lucky 'cause we're in Studio 4A for this part of the program today. It's a special pre-holiday gathering of international musicians, many of them are or were street musicians, you know, the kind that play for spare change.

They're together today because of a producer who made good on a unique and outrageous idea: To travel the world recording street musicians all playing one certain song in the same tempo and key. He combined those performances into a lush, beautifully layered five minute version of the classic "Stand by Me," that so far has been viewed almost 26 million times on YouTube.

Ten musicians have just wrapped a tour of the U.S. of their band called, what else: Playing for Change. But the name also is about a foundation they've created to help disadvantaged young people. We'll ask them about that in a minute. But, first, with them all standing here, I think we're going to have to hear from Playing for Change. How about "Stand by Me?"

(Soundbite of song, "Stand by Me")

Unidentified Man #1: (singing) Oh yeah, oh my darling, stand by me. No matter who you are, no matter where you go in life, you're going to need somebody to stand by you. No matter how much money you've got, how powerful you can be, you're going to need somebody to stand by you. (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) When the night has come and the land dark and that moon is the only light we see. No, I won't be afraid, no, I won't shed one tear. Just as long - people come and stand by me. Whenever you're trouble, come and stand by me. Oh, stand by me. Oh, stand, stand by me, stand, stand by me, by me, stand by me.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) When the sky that we look upon (unintelligible) tumble and fall, oh, the mountains should crumble to the sea. My baby. I won't cry. Won't cry. I won't cry, I won't shed a tear just as long as you stand, stand by me.

Unidentified Man #2: Whenever you're in trouble, come and stand by me. Baby, won't you stand by me. Oh, stand, stand by me, baby, stand by me, stand by me.

Unidentified Man #1: Whenever you're in trouble, come and stand by me. Stand by me. Oh, stand, stand by me, by me.

KEYES: That, again, is the band Playing For Change. It's mostly made up of street musicians, including vocalist Titi Tsira from South Africa, Clarence Bekker from the Netherlands and New Orleans singer and harmonica virtuoso Grandpa Elliott. Most have played for money on city streets in Africa, Europe and North America. Today, they are playing for a different kind of change; the kind that makes the world a better place through music. That was the song that started it all. We'll tell you how to find it later on the Web. But first, let me ask the man who made this all possible, Grammy-winning producer and sound engineer Mark Johnson.

How'd you get the idea for all this in the first place?

Mr. MARK JOHNSON (Producer; Engineer): You know, the original idea to make songs around the world, it came when I was walking down the street in Santa Monica, California, where I live and I heard the voice of Roger Ridley singing the song "Stand By Me." He was a street musician and had such a powerful voice with so much soul. So I was a few blocks away from him but his voice carries.

So I ran over to him and that's when I said, you know, hey, if I come back with some recording equipment and cameras I'd love to film you, record you playing "Stand By Me," take it around the world, put headphones on other musicians and kind of show people an example what we could do in this world if we all worked together. And when I came back, he was in a set break. And I remember saying, you know, Roger, with a voice like yours what are you doing singing on the street?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: And he said well, man, Im in the joy business. I just love to bring joy to people. So when you start out with a song like "Stand By Me," a voice like Roger and the intention to connect people, you know, only good things happen and that's how I've been able to meet so many great musicians around the world.

KEYES: For the people that haven't seen it, the video is really cool, because what you see is Mark with a microphone, there's a cameraman and you're going from place to place in the mountains, down by the ocean and everyone is singing the song. And if you are not a musician you might not know how difficult it is to make all of that match in sync.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Titi, I want to ask you, you and I are basically the only women sitting in this part of the room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: And I've seen from some of the videos that there were other women involved. But if you were the only woman on this last tour, was that a good thing or a rather interesting thing?

Ms. TITI TSIRA (Vocalist): Well, I dont think I was the only woman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TSIRA: Because there are other women in the, your own crew.

KEYES: Yeah.

Ms. TSIRA: So, I don't see it as the only woman, but onstage, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TSIRA: But really I don't feel it because I'm working with such lovely artist on that stage. I'm just learning and I'm just taking in.

KEYES: Titi, what was it like to be in with group for you?

Ms. TSIRA: Oh, it's a lot of things. Some I cannot explain, it's what I know inside and it's a learning experience for me.

KEYES: Do you feel like it's helped you grow as a musician?

Ms. TSIRA: Yes. You know, as a singer, well, I think every day you grow. There's never a moment where you can say I am the perfect singer. There is no perfect singer. You know, every day you learn, every single second, that you can take something from someone and learn something, that's what I treasure so that's what I'm getting here. I'm being fed a lot.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, man.

Ms. TSIRA: Actually. Yeah.

KEYES: Mark, I have to ask you, you have a foundation that the band is helping you with. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right. So as we were traveling around the world recording musicians, you know, they would invite us in their homes, play us their music, tell us their stories and then feed us and, you know, so we realized well, we've got to give back. And that's why we set up the Playing For Change Foundation, and so far we've established seven music schools around the world, in different villages and different cities all around the world with the intention of doing something similar to the "Stand By Me" video.

The first school we built in Gugulethu, South Africa, which was the exact spot where the guy was playing the upright bass in the "Stand By Me" video and that's actually where we met our amazing singer, Titi Tsira. And then our second school is in Tamale, Ghana, the home of Mohammed Alidu our percussionist. Our newest school is in Kirina, Mali, which is a 2000-year-old village made up entirely of musicians. And then we have our music schools as well in Rwanda and in Nepal, in three different parts of Nepal.

KEYES: Grandpa, I want to ask you, coming from New Orleans where they've been so much need for people to be helped there. How do you feel about being involved with the group that's doing something to help people elsewhere?

Mr. GRANDPA ELLIOTT (Harmonica player; Singer): You know, first of all, I've been in the French Quarters for 60 years entertaining tourists, and my dream was to go on the road like what I'm doing now. But I couldn't then because the guys was in diapers. They was crawling. And they was babies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. ELLIOTT: So I had to wait until they grow up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. ELLIOTT: So, Mark Johnson, when he made a certain age, and the rest of the guys, they made, they age what they are now, that's when he approached me in New Orleans and he talked to me and it was many, many people that spoke to me that tried to get me to go on the road with them. But I look in this young man's eyes. I said this guy, he's talking. He's growing me. And then look where I am. I said, mmm.

KEYES: Since we've got to talking already, perhaps we can talk you into singing for us. How about some "Fannie Mae?"

MR. ELLIOTT: Pull something out the hat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. ELLIOTT: You surprising me. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

MR. ELLIOTT: How you know I play "Fannie Mae?"

KEYES: I heard it through the grapevine.

MR. ELLIOTT: Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. ELLIOTT: Wait, let's see what I can do. I'm going to raise the hair on your back.

KEYES: Oh, my goodness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Fannie Mae")

Mr. ELLIOTT: (Singing) Well, I want somebody to tell me what's wrong with me. Can I get somebody to tell me what's wrong with me? No, I ain't in no trouble, just a lot of misery.

Fannie Mae, baby, won't you please come home? Fannie Mae, babe, baby, won't you please come home? No I ain't been loving since youve been gone.

I can hear your name down the line. I can hear your name ringing on down that line. I wanna know, do you love me if youre wasting my time.

Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.

KEYES: Wow, it's hard to talk with my hair standing all on end, but I have to go. We're running out of time. But I want to ask one more question of you, Clarence.

Mr. CLARENCE BEKKER (Musician): Oh, please do.

KEYES: Yeah. You didnt think you were going to get away with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEKKER: I thought I might not. But all right.

KEYES: I just want to ask what has this meant for your career and the other musicians here? I mean some of you, as we said in the beginning, were playing on the streets when this started. Where are you now?

Mr. BEKKER: Where am I now? I signed a contract with Concord Records and I'll be in the studio in the end of December working with Reggie McBride as a producer and Mark Johnson. Working on a new album, which is going to be released I think somewhere early next year.

KEYES: Playing for Change plays for a foundation aimed at connecting the world through music, music schools and programs around the world. Mark Johnson is the man who started it all. I want to thank him and the truly diverse group of musicians who are Playing for Change. They've got a CD and DVD you should watch for called simply "Live." Just as they wind up this 25 stop tour here in Washington, D.C. in the area I should say, they're now putting together an international tour for 2011.

Maybe we can get you guys to do one more song for us, but as kind of an anthem this time. I think "A Change is Going to Come."

(Soundbite of song, "A Change is Going to Come")

PLAYING FOR CHANGE: (Singing) I was born by the river in this little tent. Just like this river, I've been a running ever since. It's been a long time coming, I know a change going to come.

It's been too hard living. I dont want to die, no. Cuz I don't know what's up there way beyond the cloud. It's been a long time coming, Lord, I know, I know, I know a change is going to come, oh yes it will.

Then I go to my brother. And I say brother, please, can you help me? But he wind up, mm-hmm, knocking me down, down on my knees. There's been times that I felt I couldn't get along. Oh, no, no, but now I know I'm still able, able, able, and I'm strong enough to carry on.

It's been a long time coming, I know a change is going to come, oh yes it will.

KEYES: And as a reminder, there will be a special Web version of the song, "Dont Worry," and you can link to the original videos produced by Mark Johnson, including the "Stand By Me" video I mentioned before, by going to npr.org, clicking on the Programs menu and selecting TELL ME MORE.

I'm Allison Keyes in for Michel Martin. Youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Well talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song, "A Change is Going to Come")

PLAYING FOR CHANGE: (Singing) And I go again to my brother. And...

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