Mark Johnson is the founder of Playing For Change and the Playing For Change Foundation. PFC originated as a music project to bring musicians from around the world together using some of the world’s most popular songs to foster peace. The Foundation came out of that project and is focussed on building music schools and community centres that not only teach music, they also connect villages, towns, and cities from around the world as a way of improving education, health, change, and eventually world peace. PFC now includes a band featuring many of the musicians filmed as part of the first project and who now tour internationally in the hope of bringing the PFC message to people the world over. The band recently finished a highly successful 2009 international tour where they recorded a live album called Playing For Change Live and are currently on a heavily booked North American tour through November. The tagline for the PFC website is “Connecting the world through music” and at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, PFC founder Mark Johnson chatted with TWOAB’s Ben Fast about the band and what PFC is currently involved with. Johnson started off by explaining the goal of PFC.
MJ: Well the thing is, with Playing for Change, the whole thing is a social movement. It’s about people everywhere. And it’s about finding one thing everyone can believe in. That one thing is definitely music. With that it’s one heart to another heart, so you have the ability to actually connect the world. And with the technology that’s available, we can travel the world, we can make songs around the world, people can post them on the internet, millions of people can watch them, ideas can come from that, and it can serve as a reminder. But we want to be able to do so much more building a family around the world, so we have the Playing For Change Foundation, which was born out of travelling the world looking in the eyes of the people and having them say to us “we would love to have a music school in our community. Give the kids here a choice, give us a chance to control and maintain our history, and give us a chance to move forward with the planet.” So we built our first school in Gugulethu, South Africa; then went on to build a school in Tamale, Ghana; another one in Tintale, Nepal, 15 hours from Kathmandu with a one hour walk; our newest one is in Kirina, Mali, a village about 1500 years old, all musicians averaging 70-75th generation musicians in the same spot. [They have] no electricity, no running water, so we’re building a school there and the idea is the we can start to connect to schools around the world: New Orleans, Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, everybody can start to get connected so that the kids can learn about each other, break down stereotypes, see themselves more as like a global family. So we’re working with partners like NASA [and] with the United Nations to create this concept where there’s an interactive connection from schools because it always goes two directions with music: the listener and the performer have equal value. So from that you can use that as the foundation, the tree that so many things can come from like tele-medicine, and information sharing amongst people around the world, disease prevention, helping people get clean water, “dig that well 20 feet to the left and four feet deep,” you know all different ways of saving so many lives and connecting people and if inspiration is the centre then there’s no judgement. It’s not like “oh, you’re helping me” it’s “we’re doing this together.” So every school we build is from the community for the community run by the community, then they get to have that feeling of pride. Once you have that internal feeling you can spread it out. Now they’re interested in learning about all the different cultures; the people who are fighting stop fighting because they have something in common. They can believe and that’s actually real, not some sort of political situation: this is something from people for people. That’s what the dream is: to build and to connect hundreds of schools around the world, create a place where the kids of the planet start to see each other in a new way, be able to collaborate together, and see how far we can take something that actually belongs to all of us.
BF: So how long have you been running PFC? When did YOU start it, because you are the founder, correct?
MJ: Yah, nine years ago.
BF: So how did it start?
MJ: Alright, the quick version!
BF: [Laughs] Yah, the quick version! I’ve seen the PBS Special, so…
MJ: Ok, right on, right on. So you know about the monks in the subway station? That was the epiphany. I was on my way to work at a recording studio in Manhattan. I was in a subway station. On this one day 200 people stopped and they were watching these two monks painted all in white with robes on: one playing a nylon-stringed guitar and the other one singing a language I didn’t know and I imagine most people didn’t know. But this one day everybody stopped. Usually some people stop, they run by each other, whatever. This day everybody is watching, some people have tears in their eyes, jaw-dropping. I get on the train, get to this beautiful recording studio, it occurs to me the best music I ever heard in my life was on the way to the recording studio, not in the studio. That day I realized great music and art are everywhere and in those moments there is the energy to bring all sorts of people together. So that was the epiphany, so follow that kind of path.
BF: And your first musician was…in Santa Monica, correct?
MJ: The first musician for the journey around the world…We had made a film called Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians Across America which had pre-Katrina New Orleans, and…anyway then we decided to try it around the world and that’s when we met Roger Ridley singing Stand By Me in Santa Monica, CA.
BF: Now that you have a touring band, you have the foundation going strong, what’s the next step?
MJ: [With no hesitation] Just constantly evolving. As individuals, as a group, and as a plan, constantly evolving. So spread the message more with the musicians, creating a record company for all our artists to play on around the world, build more schools around the world, develop more relationships and partnerships, and try and just build this thing.
BF: What’s the easiest way to get the word out? Not everybody can come to a festival like this and see the band.
MJ: I think the easiest way is probably to try and get as many people as possible to join the community at playingforchange.com. And it’s our job to try and spread the message to as many people to be aware, and then when they get there to have enough interaction and stuff to do to be able to get the world to be a better place together.
BF: And your role with the band?
MJ: The music director?
BF: What’s everyday life like for you on the road?
MJ: Everyday life for me has been amazing! Everyday I get to wake up and see these amazing people with me is the best day of my life.
BF: I was talking with [PFC lead singer Clarence Bekker] about how he thought the whole thing – the whole band was like a family. Do you see that happening with the band?
MJ: On the strongest level you know – I couldn’t have imagined what is happening. They get together from so many different places, so many different cultures, come together and it all disappear and they are a family. They love each other and that love then gets passed on to the audience. That’s why it’s so real.
BF: I also talked to him about the start of the whole round the world idea and how he was on a track with Grandpa Elliott and Roger on Stand By Me [Bekker was recorded in Barcelona] and I asked him what was going through his head while he sang that. He said “I was singing on a track. If you had told me I would be in Vancouver with that group I would have laughed, I would have said ‘Yah right!’” You must have faced [that reaction] from everybody! [Mark tosses his head back and laughs] How did you get through that?
MJ: [A long groan] Two things got me through that: the first one would be the iPod video so I could at least show people where we were at at that time so they didn’t think I was crazy, and the second thing would be persevering. I just knew it was supposed to be happening. The musicians everywhere wanted to play on it, it just took some time!
BF: How did it take to film that first video?
MJ: Stand By Me probably took almost two years…
BF: And some musicians you filmed, you had just heard about them the day before?
MJ: Yah, we – the whole thing was a process, like technology too. When I started that it was like golf cart batteries powering [the equipment] and then car batteries, and now battery packs. As that evolved it was easier to move things around.
BF: What was the most interesting place you filmed, for yourself?
MJ: For me personally, well… Yah, different things, so interesting…they are all…a combination of two answers would be the townships of South Africa because they have so little and they’ve come from such intense conflict but they have more happiness than anything I had ever seen in my life and more of a connection with singing. One of the guys told me “we play music down here to stay as far away from the grave as possible.” I think that gives us all insight into the depths and the possibilities of music that I had never before that moment imagined. The most exotic place…you know I always say Kathmandu because it’s a lot like going to Mars! [Chuckles] It’s just a whole new different ballgame everything is just so different. One thing is very much the same: humanity. We got set up with some of the greatest musicians there: Sur Sudha are sort of The Beatles of Nepal and they became our great friends and played on One Love. At that point half of it was ‘show up’ and the other half was ‘try and find a guide’ that could help us find and meet musicians. We just filmed a group of some of my favourite musicians who are Tuaregs from the Sahara Desert and they play the blues. We were interviewing them and it went like this: He was speaking in his native dialect [to a translator] in French who was translating it to Spanish [for another translator] who was translating it into English! Words…words are not the same.
Words can get confusing, but the music is always universal. And it’s changing the world.
 (n.b. tele-medicine is having a doctor available to communities via telephone or internet without needing to travel to the remote villages which is costly and time consuming, and can be dangerous in war-torn regions. Ironically, MP3 players with microphones are now being used to check and record heartbeats so doctors can diagnose illnesses from thousands of miles away)