Playing for Change

Earlier this month, I attended an outstanding concert given by the band Playing for Change. The original Playing for Change was a unique musical gathering, via technology, of individuals all over the world, each simultaneously singing or playing the same song and listening through headphones to the others. Some were street musicians, and all were recorded outdoors. The combined blending of voices, instruments, and diverse cultures was very moving, especially given the lyrics to the song used: “Stand by Me.” This extraordinary musical event was captured in a documentary film and also became famous globally on YouTube (

After that first long-distance collaboration, Playing for Change recorded other songs with some of the same and also different musicians. The Playing for Change band formed and began to tour the world, often performing benefits to raise funds to build music and art schools in communities that need “inspiration and hope.” They believe that music is a universal language that can unite people from different backgrounds. The group of musicians I saw in concert included two from the original recording, Clarence Bekker from Amsterdam and Grandpa Elliott from New Orleans, as well as others from Africa and the U.S. The musicianship was excellent, the songs diverse and powerful, and the performances literally vibrated with high energy. The entire audience was on their feet singing and dancing for the last few numbers.

Throughout two nonstop hours of music, the message of “playing for change” was conveyed, both in the lyrics and in the musicians’ introductions to songs. The double meaning of the name, Playing for Change, of course, refers both to their commitment to “bringing peace to the world through music” and to musicians who perform their music on street corners or in subways. I’ve always been struck by the power of that name and of the multiple implications for global transformation through music, through play.

The current “Occupy” movement incorporates both of these in flash mob events where large groups perform well-known popular songs, such as Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and the classic disco tune “I Will Survive,” with cleverly changed lyrics to bring home a message about workers’ rights, economic equality, or social justice. Because the dancing and singing are both playful and hilarious, onlookers often laugh and sing along. Humor and music are both great connectors.

I also think of the larger meaning of playing for change—how we all live our lives, day to day. Are we open to change? Do we make time for play? Do we allow music to open our hearts with compassion and joy? Every time I hear “Stand by Me,” I feel a surge of hope for the world, for the possibility that we can all join hands across cultures, countries, and ideological differences to live a future based in unity and mutual understanding. It feels like an anthem for the times. (Listen at the link above.) I am grateful to groups like Playing for Change who so eloquently and tirelessly bring this message to people everywhere.

“No matter who you are, no matter where you go in life, you’re gonna need somebody to stand by you.” Visit the Playing for Change website to learn about them and to hear other wonderful songs:

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