Playing for Change Founder Travels the World to Promote Peace Through Music

Mark Johnson spent 10 years recording music around the world to promote peace.

ByABC News
July 24, 2009, 7:19 PM

July 24, 2009— -- Filmmaker Mark Johnson had a simple idea -- that the world can be connected through music.

Johnson's dream began a decade ago in a New York City subway. He heard two monks playing music -- one had a nylon guitar and the other was singing. They were wearing robes and painted white from head to toe. About 200 people had stopped to watch them, ignoring the train as it came and went. Johnson realized he was standing in the midst of a group that normally wouldn't converge -- they were brought together by the music.

"We had the idea to travel around the world, record different musicians playing their own songs, interview them about how does music persevere through struggles, and then connect them with the songs around the world," Johnson said.

Johnson hit the road and began recording musicians on camera. Starting in Santa Monica, Calif., he captured a performance by the legendary street blues singer Roger Ridley, of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me."

He then traveled to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina and found a street performer named Grandpa Elliott. Johnson placed headphones on Elliott's ears and recorded him as he added his own twist to the song "Stand By Me."

Johnson journeyed on to the Zuni Native Indian Reservation in New Mexico and to South Africa to record a Zulu choir. He captured riffs, drums and cellos in Russia, Spain, Italy and Venezuela -- all the while building a thrilling mix of the song.

"All of this was layering musicians on top of each other. They could all hear whatever had come before them, and then they could find a way to make their track something that was more of a universal song," he said.

Along the way, Johnson founded Playing for Change, a foundation that seeks to unite musicians and bring people together while promoting peace. It funds music schools around the world -- the first just opened in South Africa.

"The idea is to show people enough different cultures using music to uplift themselves, so that we can see the connections we all have," he said.