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Playing for Change: Listen to the Music
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/2/2018)
The popularity of world music over recent decades has resulted in a number of interesting cross-cultural collaborations, with musicians from different parts of the world, who play very different musical traditions, combining for a stylistic fusion. Perhaps the most influential one in terms of inspiring the whole cross cultural movement was Paul Simon’s seminal 1986 album Graceland. Such projects have often involved well-known Western musicians getting together with musicians from elsewhere. Another artist known for such projects a number of years ago is Peter Gabriel. But perhaps the most wide-ranging musical projects involving musicians from different parts of the world are the Playing For Change albums, which altered the paradigm for such endeavors, with instead of bringing the musicians together physically to record, the producers traveled around the world to record the musicians in their own settings, usually playing outdoors, adding their parts gradually one by one to background tracks, building into impressive but essentially virtual musical amalgams.
The latest Playing For Change album, the fourth in the “Songs Around the World” series, not counting a live album and some more limited projects, is called Listen to the Music, and this one involves more American musicians than the previous three. But but the stylistic heterogeneity is no less impressive.
Playing For Change started around 2005 when producer Mark Johnson and filmmaker Enzo Buono set out to create a film capturing musicians in their own settings, usually outdoors in the street. They traveled to dozens of countries around the worked with portable recording equipment and a bunch of song selections, and got musicians to record their parts, overdubbing onto those songs, with Johnson and his colleagues setting out to get the unique contributions of the players. Because the producers went to the musicians, in most cases, the participants never were in the same room. A typical song might have layers recorded in five or six different countries. There were vocal contributions from well-known and not so well-known artists with almost always a mixture of instruments from different parts of he world. At the same time, videos were shot of the musicians performing their parts outdoors, and were assembled into visually engaging montages with cutting between the players in their different locales.
Meanwhile, Playing for Change has grown into a non-profit foundation supporting music education in Third World Countries, establishing schools in at least 15 countries, in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
The new album features appearances by some notable American performers, including bluesman Buddy Guy, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Dr. John, David Crosby, Jimmy Buffett, singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, Warren Haynes from Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band, the Neville Brothers, and members of the Doobie Brothers. The songs performed include compositions by Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, the Grateful Dead and the Doobie Brothers. But there are also songs from Cuba, and as has been the case for each of the previous Playing for Change albums, songs by Bob Marley. In all, there are 210 musicians from 25 different countries who appear on the new album.
Once again, it all works out very skillfully, when such a cross-cultural amalgam had the potential to be become an incoherent mishmash or a novelty record.
Leading off is the Playing for Change version of the Doobie Brothers early hit Listen to the Music. Original Doobie Brothers vocalist Tom Johnston sings, and at first it sounds fairly close to the original <<>> but then the interesting added parts are brought in. They include a Gospel choir from Mississippi, a Venezuelan bassist, an Indian veena player, and percussionists from Lebanon and Senegal.
The following track is an original by one of the vocalists on the album Luke Winslow-King. Everlasting Arms has the sound of a traditional spiritual and it’s nicely done. Among the guest vocalists is Dr. John. <<>>
One of the familiar songs that the Playing for Change project undertakes is Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, made famous by Jimi Hendrix. It includes Native American ululation and features a big African drum sound. The conventional drummer is John Densmore of the Doors, with a guitar solo by Warren Haynes. Cyril and Ivan Neville are among the vocalists. <<>>
Bob Marley is obviously favorite of producer Mark Johnson, with each of the Playing for Change albums including at least one Marley composition. This recording features Marley’s Natural Mystic, with a pastiche of influences from blues to African. Lee Oskar from the band War, appears on harmonica. <<>>
Bluesman Buddy Guy is featured on his original soul tune Skin Deep. Surprisingly, the tune is done as a slow a ballad. This track has an all-American cast, including veteran Chicago blues harmonica man Billy Branch. <<>>
The album includes a Cuban tune, Chan Chan which appeared on the hit Buena Vista Social Club album a few years ago. It’s a mixture of Cuban styles with the Malian kora. <<>>
Another original song is Congo to the Mississippi, which features the vocals of the duo Afro Fiesta, and includes a piano part recorded in Japan, with percussion from Italy. <<>>
The album ends with the Grateful Dead song Ripple which features vocals by the Grateful Dead’s Billy Kreutzman, along with David Crosby, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Jimmy Buffett. The international cast includes the string section and steel guitar recorded in Italy, percussion from Ghana and a bassist from Argentina. But it still sounds like a Grateful Dean song. <<>>
Listen to the Music the new fourth album in the Playing For Change Songs Around the World series is another engaging stylistic amalgam, mixing musicians recorded in 25 different countries, collaborating virtually, adding their parts in their own locations, usually recorded outdoors on the streets. Producers Mark Johnson, Enzo Buono and Mermans Mosengo do an impressive job of making this huge undertaking into a coherent musical performance. The US is represented more on this new album than on the previous ones, but except for one track with an all-American cast, there are always interesting international stylistic ingredients that are brought to bear. Among the American performers, there are several prominent names. Such a diverse bunch of musicians and styles could have come across as a gimmicky or novelty recording, but it makes for satisfying listening, irrespective from the international cast.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” That is the more significant given the way the album was made with portable equipment recording outdoors in all kinds of locations. The mixing job was a major undertaking no doubt, assembling all those parts into a sonically unified continuum, and it comes off very well, with the album having good clarity and warmth.
The Playing for Change albums have been distinctive and engaging from the start, and almost always convey a feeling of good spirits even though the most of the musicians represented have never met one another. The new release Listen to the Music may be the best yet in the series.
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