Train doors open at a subway stop in New York City. Nobody gets on.
Two monks wearing long robes have the attention of business executives, a group of school children, people rushing to work, and a few homeless men. A music engineer on his way to New York’s legendary The Hit Factory recording studio is also mesmerized by the street performers.
“On this day everybody stopped to listen and we didn’t even know what language they were singing in. At that moment we were all connected,” said Mark Johnson. “As I got on the train I thought I could spend my whole life in the studio, but I’m never going to find the magic that just happened. Great music, great art are moments in time and they happen everywhere.”
That insight lead to the creation of a world-wide musical group with street performers from dozens of countries. They performed for Starbucks shareholders and partners (employees) during the company’s 2014 Annual Meeting in Seattle.
Johnson - a producer and sound engineer for Broadway orchestras, Paul Simon, and Biggie Smalls, among others - realized the street musicians and the professional talent he worked with all had one thing in common. Even though they went home to different worlds, music was the most passionate part of their lives.
“That’s when the idea was born. I decided to try to bring the studio to the people,” Johnson said. “Using the same high-fidelity equipment, I set out to record musicians in streets, villages, and reservations around the world.”
In 2002, Johnson co-founded “Playing For Change” with film producer Whitney Kroenke. They hit the road with a mobile recording studio and cameras in search of “the heartbeat of the people.” They met with musicians throughout the U.S. and around the world in Barcelona, South Africa, India, Nepal, the Middle East and Ireland. Years into the project, Johnson’s day job was recording albums for Jackson Browne, Los Lobos, and others while his passion on the side was assembling and recording street musicians.
A turning point came in 2005 when Johnson heard a distinct, soulful voice in Santa Monica, California.
“No matter who you are, no matter where you go in your life, at some point you’re going to need somebody to stand by you,” said Roger Ridley, a street musician who quietly said those words and began belting out the Ben E. King classic “Stand By Me.”
Johnson approached Ridley afterwards and asked why, with his expressive voice and talent, he was singing on the streets for crumpled up dollars and spare change.
“Man, I’m in the joy business,” Ridley responded. “I come out to be with the people.”
In a recording studio, doors are closed. At concerts, you need a ticket to get in. But with a street performance, there are no barriers between the music and the people who listen and embrace the music as their own.
Ridley, who has passed away, sang on Playing for Change’s first “Songs Around the World” album in 2009 with musicians from Louisiana and New Mexico in the U.S. as well as talent in Brazil, Russia, Venezuela, Spain, Italy, France, South Africa, and The Congo. Ridley also appeared on the group’s video recording of “Stand By Me” which has had over 59 million views on YouTube.
Playing For Change has been to over 40 countries recording and filming music. A third album comes out in June and will be available in select Starbucks® stores.
Like Starbucks, the musical group believes the true measure of any movement is what it gives back. In 2001, Johnson created the Playing For Change Foundation - a nonprofit organization dedicated to building music and art schools for children around the world.
The newest school is in a 1,000 year old village in Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa. Villagers literally formed the bricks that built the music school. About 400 kids signed up for lessons on the first day it was open. The school is just the beginning for the village which recently struck water in the area and received a grant for solar power.
“There are three things that remind us we’re all human – music, laughter and being a part of something that is bigger than yourself,” said Johnson.
Starbucks shareholders and partners saw street musicians from nine countries performing with Playing for Change during the Annual Meeting at McCaw Hall in Seattle. Johnson hopes the music inspires anyone who hears the group.
“Some may want to get involved with building a school; others may just leave the room and smile a little more,” he says. “It’s all good as long as people realize that no matter how many things divide us, that’s not as big as the things that bring us together like music.”