A Musical Movement Aimed at True Harmony

A Musical Movement Aimed at True Harmony

How does a novel idea transform into a global phenomenon?

For filmmaker and co-founder Jonathan Walls, it took his Playing For Change movement (performing the first of their traveling road shows at the Birchmere on Tuesday, October 20) close to 10 years of blood, sweat, thousands of frequent flier miles and many lucky breaks to finally relay their message that through music people can understand one anothers differences and create a better world.

After I finished a directing workshop at the New York Film Academy, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, but I sure didnt think it would be [Playing for Change], Walls relates about the peace-through-music movement in a recent telephone interview.

Yet, a friend Walls grew up with in Olean, N.Y., was living in Los Angeles at the time with (creator / co-founder) Mark Johnson. For the idea that Johnson had in mind, he needed a filmmaker, so they convinced Walls to come out and live on their couch while they developed the project.

The premise was simple but profound. By capturing street musicians performing their own music on various streets around the globe, viewers would get an easily digestible understanding of their cultures, their desires, their despairs and their very existence. By asking the artists to perform standard songs of hope and unity (such as Ben E. Kings Stand By Me and Bob Marleys One Love) and then layering them into a single voice, Playing for Change would hopefully be able to influence audiences opinions that humans share a common existence, regardless of race, sex, education level or social status.

After a two-year search for funding, Johnson, Walls and two additional crew members set off on their quest for harmonic knowledge. As one might expect from a journey covering the far corners of the globe, their experiences have been remarkable.

In traveling to places like northern India, where refugees literally climbed the Himalayas in search of freedom, you get a better understanding of what some people go through just to obtain the daily lives that we take for granted, Walls explains.

A common theme we kept creeping up on, time and again, was how people use music to help persevere through such horrific situations, like in New Orleans after Katrina, he said. In the township of Soweto in Johannesburg [South Africa], you see the lasting effects that apartheid had on these people. The abject poverty was apparent in the seas of shacks we walked through. But then you mingle with them, and see the joy and sparkle in their eyes, and you realize that somehow, some way, theyve been able to overcome.

After spending a few hours (or sometimes a few days), the four-man crew would slowly earn the trust and respect of their subjects.

Thats whats key, says Walls, in order to get the truth out of them they have to trust you. As a filmmaker, you have to wrap yourself into the moment and be open for the pure randomness that can occur in that sort of situation. Its surprising what will come out.

Its this aspect thats made Playing for Change one of 2009s most unlikely cultural phenomenon. Becoming a YouTube sensation with tens of millions of internet views led to the movement gaining a fair amount of media coverage, with appearances by a collection of the projects musicians on The Tonight Show and The Colbert Report, as well as being named Persons of the Week on ABCs World News Tonight. The two-disc CD and DVD Playing for Change: Songs Around the World stunned the music industry in April, selling more than 26,000 copies in its first week and landing at No. 10 on Billboards Top 200 chart. An edited version of the documentary Playing For Change: Peace Through Music was used as a centerpiece to PBSs August fundraising drive. All of this attention has led to the movements current tour and the full-length DVD release of Peace Through Music this past Tuesday.

Bringing together such a diverse collection of nine musicians from seven countries offers a unique premise for future Playing for Change coverage.

Im really interested in seeing how this tour will turn out, to be honest with you, Walls says. Not only with what happens on stage but also what happens off-stage. The interactions these musicians will have with each other, capturing their emotions, both good and bad my plan is to give out some handheld cameras for them to film what I might miss. I think the results could be amazing.