The story begins with Mark Johnson—a Grammy Award-winning music producer and engineer—hurrying through a crowded New York City subway. All of a sudden, he hears two monks making music, playing and singing in a language he doesn’t understand. He walks toward them and becomes part of the ad hoc audience, 200 or so people who have stopped moving toward their individual destinations in order to cluster together and listen to the music. If it hasn’t occurred to him before, it hits him now that music is a way to bring people together.
Back home in Santa Monica, Johnson is walking along a street when he hears the voice of Roger Ridley, a street musician who performs regularly on the 3rd Street Promenade. Johnson retraces his steps to ask Ridley if he can record him—and then take the song around the world to overdub the tracks of other musicians. That is the birth of “Stand By Me,” as produced by Playing For Change.
After 10 years, there’s a documentary, Playing For Change: Peace Through Music; then a CD, Playing For Change: Songs Around the World; and still later another CD, PFC2. The Playing For Change Band is formed with musicians from the U.S., the Netherlands, Zimbabwe, the Congo, Italy, and South Africa. As Johnson & company take all of these songs around the world, PFC stops along the way to develop eight music schools (in South Africa, Ghana, Nepal, Rwanda, and Mali), and then creates Playing For Change Day, an annual event to unite people through music and raise money to develop more music schools and programs.
Roger Ridley dies in November 2005. But the story hasn’t come close to ending.
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You just never know the magnitude or the nature of the spark that could ignite—that could even change the world—through the simple act of creating something that’s meaningful in this moment only to you.