Mark Johnson
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Mark Johnson

Santa Monica, California, United States

Santa Monica, California, United States
Band Comedy Spoken Word

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Music

The best kept secret in music

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Bill Moyers sits down with Mark Johnson, the producer of a remarkable documentary about the simple but transformative power of music: PLAYING FOR CHANGE: PEACE THROUGH MUSIC. The film brings together musicians from around the world — blues singers in a waterlogged New Orleans, chamber groups in Moscow, a South African choir — to collaborate on songs familiar and new, in the effort to foster a new, greater understanding of our commonality.

Johnson traveled around the globe and recorded tracks for such classics as "Stand By Me" and Bob Marley's "One World" — creating a new mix in which essentially the performers are all performing together — worlds apart. Often recording with just battery-powered equipment, Johnson found musicians on street corners or in small clubs and they would in turn gather their friends and colleagues — in all, they recorded over 100 musicians from Tibet to Zimbabwe.

The unique composition of the film which has musicians playing together yet in their own traditions, made Johnson think anew about what world music means:

Just thinking in my mind... what would be unique instruments to juxtapose against each other that had never been heard before: a talking drum and a tabla, they're very similar but they never really come together, or a sitar and a dobro, very similar but how often do you hear them play together? The idea was to go to places that would have some sort of instruments that they could add to the spectrum of the global music that we were trying to find.

The Playing For Change Foundation provides resources (facilities, supplies, educational programs, etc) to musicians and communities around the world. The foundation is working with South African poet Lesego Rampolokenga to build the Mehlo Arts Center in Johannesburg, South Africa and building and supporting the Ntonga Music School in the South African township of Guguletu. In addition, Playing For Change is working to enhance and rebuild Tibetan refugee centers in Dharamasala, India and Kathmandu, Nepal. You can find news about their benefit concerts and programs, and listen to additional songs, on their Web site: Playingforchange.com.
PLEASE NOTE: PLAYING FOR CHANGE: PEACE THROUGH MUSIC is the second film directed by Mark Johnson and Jonathan Walls. Their previous film, titled PLAYING FOR CHANGE: A CINEMATIC DISCOVERY OF STREET MUSIC was released in 2005, and is currently available through Netflix. - PBS


Mark Johnson began the now iconic Playing for Change movement. Before his talk, the YouTube video that started it all jumps on to the screen and we hear the first notes of “Stand by Me,” as performed by artists all over the world. For those who have not yet seen the video, it’s a magical moment. Those who have seen the video sway along, simply delighted to see the familiar faces of these diverse musicians again.

Johnson takes the stage, saying that Playing for Change is all about the power of music and technology. He tells the story of how it all began. While working as a sound engineer in New York, he saw two monks playing music on the subway on his way to work. About 200 people had stopped, watching the performance, some crying. He realized that great music and great art were the product of moments in time like this one. He was inspired to take his studio to the people.

Then, he says, a little over four years ago he was walking in Santa Monica, California and heard the blind street musician Roger Ridley singing “Stand By Me.” That was the beginning of the video now seen by millions. Johnson recounts his recordings on city streets, in subways, at Indian reservations and the inspiration he found in every person and every situation.

He’s now created the Playing for Change foundation to create and give money to music schools for children around the world. He’s mounted cameras in the schools and connected them to the Internet so that donors can log in and see the children they’re giving too. Johnson is also connecting the schools so they can see each other, learn from each other and maybe break stereotypes at a young age. A film has been made about the foundation that premiered at the Tribeca film festival and the video of “Stand by Me” has been viewed over 30 million times. He wants people everywhere to watch, share and learn about each other. He wants to create a global family of musicians and he wants us all to work together for the common goal of peace through music.

When Johnson steps down from the stage, another of his videos appears on the screen. This time, it’s a passionate rendition of Bob Marley’s “War” and “No More Trouble” by dozens of incredible musicians. As the video fades out, the room explodes into joyous applause and breaks into those whoops Chris Anderson promised when beginning TEDGlobal. - TED


Filmmaker Mark Johnson had a simple idea -- that the world can be connected through music.

Johnson's dream began a decade ago in a New York City subway. He heard two monks playing music -- one had a nylon guitar and the other was singing. They were wearing robes and painted white from head to toe. About 200 people had stopped to watch them, ignoring the train as it came and went. Johnson realized he was standing in the midst of a group that normally wouldn't converge -- they were brought together by the music.

"We had the idea to travel around the world, record different musicians playing their own songs, interview them about how does music persevere through struggles, and then connect them with the songs around the world," Johnson said.

Johnson hit the road and began recording musicians on camera. Starting in Santa Monica, Calif., he captured a performance by the legendary street blues singer Roger Ridley, of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me."

He then traveled to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina and found a street performer named Grandpa Elliott. Johnson placed headphones on Elliott's ears and recorded him as he added his own twist to the song "Stand By Me."

Johnson journeyed on to the Zuni Native Indian Reservation in New Mexico and to South Africa to record a Zulu choir. He captured riffs, drums and cellos in Russia, Spain, Italy and Venezuela -- all the while building a thrilling mix of the song.

"All of this was layering musicians on top of each other. They could all hear whatever had come before them, and then they could find a way to make their track something that was more of a universal song," he said.

Along the way, Johnson founded Playing for Change, a foundation that seeks to unite musicians and bring people together while promoting peace. It funds music schools around the world -- the first just opened in South Africa.

"The idea is to show people enough different cultures using music to uplift themselves, so that we can see the connections we all have," he said.

The Playing for Change Album

For 10 years, Johnson traveled the globe with his team. His mobile recording studio -- powered by a golf cart and car batteries -- recorded the musicians outdoors surrounded by people.

"It all started out with an idea that we can use music to inspire each other, but it wasn't until we were on the streets and actually visiting with all these different cultures that we realized how incredible the connections are between people all over the world," he said. "The world wants to come together and music is the best way to do that."

The result of all these recordings? Johnson has compiled a music album with a number of songs from his global jam. The video itself has had more than 20 million views on YouTube.

"The most important thing that I learned around the world is that, that is the one thing that we share, and can inspire us to leave the world a better place," he said. - ABC


Discography

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Bio

Mark Johnson is a Grammy®-winning producer/engineer and award-winning film director whose visionary concept a decade ago became the driving force behind Playing for Change. His work was spotlighted in a profile on the PBS series Bill Moyers Journal.

For the past decade, he has worked with some of the most renowned producers in the music, film, and television industries, and with such musical artists as Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Rikki Lee Jones, Los Lobos, and Taj Mahal. In 2005, Johnson earned a “Contemporary Blues Album of the Year” Grammy as producer/engineer of the Keb’ Mo’ album Keep It Simple. In 2010, Mark and Playing For Change won the Cuba disco Award for best world album in Cuba.

Mark parlayed his musical knowledge and technical skills in perfecting an innovative mobile technique for recording street musicians around the world, and combining their performances, giving birth to the Songs Around The World. His first documentary film, Playing for Change: A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians, won honors at several European festivals, and his more recent project, Playing for Change: Peace through Music, garnered awards and critical praise at the Tribeca Film Festival, Maui Film Festival, San Francisco Black International Film Festival, Jerusalem Film Festival, and New England’s Roxbury Film Festival, where it earned “Best Song” for “Stand by Me.”

Mark was a featured guest on both Bill Moyer’s Journal (PBS) and the Colbert Report (Comedy Central). Johnson has also been a keynote speaker at the United Nations, TED Global, World Economic Forum in Davos, WEF – Colombia (2010), Brazil (2011), Mexico (2012), University of Michigan Martin Luther King Day Celebration, Wright State Presidential Lecture Series as well as the Million Dollar Round Table.

Mark is on the board of the Playing for Change Foundation and continues to travel the world uniting people through music and education.