Redefining World Music…
“Through music we can understand our differences and create a better world”
The term World Music has been around for a while, usually used to denote a foreign, ethnic or generally non-traditional (to western ears) sound. The small independent label Putumayo World Music has striven to bring “world music” from Brazil, Ireland, India, the Caribbean, etc. to a wider audience in the same way that Alan Lomax and others “discovered” country blues and traditional American roots music hiding in our own backyard. The recording of roots musicians who made their living as janitors, hairdressers and farm hands in rural America showed us that the fabric of our culture was deeper and richer than just the commercially successful work of Hank Williams, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong. Occasionally, western musicians have introduced an international sound and blended it in to enhance their palette. Paul Simon, for example has pioneered the incorporation of South African, South American, and Latin American music and rhythms into his compositions – with outstanding results.
Musicologist Mark Johnson and his team have now expanded and in some senses redefined the meaning of world music. All of the songs on their album “Playing for Change” have multiple artists playing in their native countries, on native instruments. The producers traveled with a recording and film crew throughout the world (they covered five continents) and invited musicians of diverse cultures to record the same tunes, introducing their unique styles and interpretations. Since the recordings were done while playing back the tracks of their fellow musicians and over dubbing as if they were in a studio, they were truly playing together in the same key and tempo, providing rich harmonies and texture. Fortunately the release includes both a CD and a DVD so we can put faces to the sounds and since the recordings were all done outside, we are treated to an international travelogue. The songs on the DVD are visually layered; as each song unfolds we are introduced to the players individually and through split screens as one, despite the thousands of miles and oceans that physically separate them.
With a few exceptions including Bono, Bob Marley, and Keb Mo, chances are you’ve never heard of most of the 100+musicians on Playing for Change, but each brings both talent and incredible spirit to the project. You’ll probably recognize many of the tunes however, including the great R&B classics Stand By Me and A Change Is Gonna Come, several timeless Reggae standards such as One Love, War/No More Trouble, Keb Mo’s Don’t Worry and Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ Bout a Revolution. While the music may be familiar, the arrangements introduce lots of surprises. Nepalese tabla player, Surendra Shresta provides the back beat to One Love for example. He doesn’t seem phased by the incongruous pairing of cultures and music – during an interview he simply comments, “Through music we can get enlightenment.”
The effect is not simply broadening the horizons of appreciation for different cultures. Through the common language of music, Playing for Change is, in the words of Keb Mo, “making the world a better place”. The theme is familiar now, as the new Obama administration is demonstrating that, “Yes, We Can.” When the Playing for Change team visited Omagh, Northern Ireland, they met and recorded the community youth choir in a truly inspiring rendition of Love Rescue Me. The Choir was formed in 1988 to help heal and unite Catholic and Protestant constituents of the community following a terrorist bombing that killed 29 and injured more than 200. In addition to making a musical statement, Playing for Change has emerged into an on-going foundation, and is building music schools for the next generation world musicians.
You can purchase the CD/DVD at Starbucks or on line: www.playingforchange.com. Proceeds go to Playing for Change Foundation to help build music schools