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Courtesy of Timeless Media

Playing for Change

Music documentary gives insight into far-flung cultures, despairs and desires

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Playing for Change: Peace Through Music
Directed by Mark Johnson and
Enzo Buono
(Timeless Media) 

Few musicians play with more passion and conviction than those who take to the sidewalks every day.

Such is evidenced in Mark Johnson and Enzo Buono’s Playing for Change, a multimedia project that seeks to bring together street musicians from around the world. Since 2004, the filmmakers and sound engineers have travelled to places such as New Orleans and Amsterdam, asking local musicians to play well-known songs of hope and unity. In a mobile recording studio, these artists perform the various parts of Ben E. King’s Stand by Me and Bob Marley’s One Love, among others, interpreting the pop classics in their distinctive styles. And though thousands of miles apart, they prove to be wildly successful in their collaborations. The offerings merge seamlessly in the studio to create extraordinary covers.

Among the street musicians are Clarence Bekker, who migrated from Suriname to Amsterdam at the age of six and grew to become a respected performer; Tal Ben Ari, a singer and composer originally from Tel Aviv who experiments with new rhythms and melodies; and Rajhesh Vaidhya, who turns the veena, a sitar-like instrument, into a melodious funk machine.

Perhaps the most enthralling performer is Grandpa Elliott, who has been a New Orleans street icon for decades. It’s said Grandpa has been the saving grace and passionate force behind the city’s revitalization since Hurricane Katrina.

Most of all, the project proves how influential popular music can be. The initiative has led to the creation of a non-profit organization called the Playing for Change Foundation, which builds children’s music schools around the world.

As a global survey of music, the film is often invigorating in its utopianism. Although gifted artists are brought together virtually, their collaboration is no less authentic. Audiences are given insight into far-flung cultures, despairs and desires — affirmed in the knowledge that we all have a common existence, regardless of nationality and social status. As creator Mark Johnson puts it, “Even in a world feeling lost and afraid in the face of global changes, music is one thing that can bring us closer together.”

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