A band with a worldwide reach embodies its name on several levels.
Playing for Change began as documentary filmmaker Mark Johnson’s grand experiment in 2005 to record the world’s best street musicians playing “Stand By Me” on their corners. His crew built a mobile recording studio and took it from California to nearly every continent, then melded those voices into a video.
It’s now spun into a YouTube phenomenon; a non-profit foundation building music schools in Third World countries; and a fundraising concert tour featuring 10 top musicians from around the globe — all spreading the message of unity through harmony, connecting the world through music.
Luminaries including Bono, Stephen Marley, Ziggy Marley, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ have collaborated on Playing for Change CDs.
The band is touring 22 cities around North America in February and March, landing at CSPS in Cedar Rapids on Feb. 23.
The musicians didn’t know each other when the project began, but have found their common ground and camaraderie.
“Mark’s message has become all of our messages together,” one of the lead vocalists, Clarence Bekker, 42, says by phone from his home in Barcelona, Spain. “Our different cultures, different musical styles, different backgrounds can come together to make happiness and bring peace, most of all to ourselves, and from there to the world.”
Bekker hasn’t always been a street musician. Born in Suriname in South America, his family moved to Amsterdam when he was 6. At age 18, he became the youngest member of the renown Dutch band, Swing Soul Machine. From there, he spun off to a solo career in dance music as CB Milton, making three albums in the ’90s. Now in Barcelona, he collaborates with bands and local DJs, and at the end of the month, will release his new album, “Old Soul,” evoking the legendary American soul musicians
“I chose some old soul recordings to introduce myself to the big American audience,” he says, “songs that lie near in my heart. I had a lot of fun recording it.”
Bekker’s musical heritage is a blend of tropical beats and soul.
“My upbringing is Caribbean and soul,” he says. “You can hear that in my voice and music, as well. Soul music has always been part of my life. My mother used to listen to a lot of soul. Motown sounds were in our house every day. I played traditional Caribbean music when I started my career.”
In 2000 he decided to travel the world with just his guitar, making music in the streets of India, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia and South America.
“That’s where my passion started for playing on the street. After I came back to Barcelona, I started to do some busking here, too, and really loved it.”
He loves the freedom it affords.
“No matter what time or what hour or how I felt, I stood on a street corner and the people would make me happy. People from all different classes. The street doesn’t know races, the street doesn’t say no to anybody,” he says.
“From newborn babies to grandpas and grandmas in their 90s, they would stop to listen to my voice. In no venue would I get an audience like that. People would really appreciate it and really be happy. I had people coming to me with tears in their eyes, really grateful that I’m doing that, which also inspired me to keep it going,” he says.
“I’m giving and I’m taking, and there was a beautiful thing about it.”
The Playing for Change touring band members hail from New Orleans, Detroit, Los Angeles, Congo, South Africa, Spain and New York.
“Most of us have a music background,” he says.
Three have street backgrounds: Jason Tamba and Mermans Mosengo of Congo and Grandpa Elliott of New Orleans.
“Some of the people are really professional professionals,” he says, “but even on the street, you find professionals, and if you’re not yet a professional, you’ll become professional. It’s the talent that counts.”
Audiences are embracing the music and the cause wherever they go.
“Our followers are reasonably educated people concerned about the well-being of the planet and are behind us 100 percent,” Bekker says. “It’s a great thing. Everywhere we go, people really embrace us with arms open wide. Even my old friends in Holland and Spain, when they see the project, they really appreciate it. I see it in their faces and their responses.”
The Playing for Change Foundation, established in 2007, has built seven music schools in Ghana, Mali, Rwanda, South Africa and Nepal, with more in the works. Bekker hasn’t visited the sites, but fully embraces the mission of providing a musical education for children in emerging countries.
“Everyone on this planet should have that to express themselves,” he says. “It also gives them big self-esteem and a secure manner to go about in their life. Music has all these ways to express yourself and is a way to become a real ‘human’ being.
“That’s why it’s important for everyone, especially in Third World countries — to build up their self-esteem and to be able to communicate with people all over the world without having to learn their language,” he says.
“We all speak the language of music. With social media, it’s easier to communicate with all parts of the world. With music, that only makes us stronger.”
- What: Playing for Change
- When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012
- Where: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
- Tickets: $27 at the door; $22 in advance