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Playing for Change: Making peace through music

Mark Johnson and crew recording a performance in Nepal. (Credit: Playing for Change Foundation).

Grammy Award-winning producer, engineer and film director Mark Johnson stopped to listen to a subway musician on his way to work one morning, when he had an epiphany: “The greatest music I had ever heard was on the way to the studio and not in the studio.” According to his web site, he decided to bring the sound studio to the street, and with the help of dancer, actress and choreographer Whitney Kroenke, made two films featuring folk and street musicians from all over the world playing in their localities. They formed Playing for Change to continue recording and promoting these artists, and not long after, started a foundation to give back to the musicians and communities they had connected with.

What Johnson and Kroenke learned from their filmmaking was that learning to make music takes resources – teachers, instruments – that aren’t always easy to find in the developing world, and those who do find a way to become professional musicians often struggle to earn a living. Despite these challenges, “music has the power to connect people regardless of their differences,” and the Playing for Change movement helps make those connections on a global scale. What began as a movie about street musicians has now become a company and foundation with a touring band, videos and music schools offering free classes in nine countries to more than 1,000 youth.

The Playing for Change movement continues to grow, mostly by word of mouth, as “there are always more musicians to records [sic]and schools to build,” J. Marie Jones said via email. The Imvula music program in South Africa recently partnered with a crowdfunded project to make a recording studio out of a shipping container, and the Star School program in Rwanda has started offering more classes to take on more students and teachers. Meanwhile, more than 200 musical acts are now featured on the Playing for Change website, and celebrities like Bono and Keith Richards have made appearances in concerts and videos.

Though Playing for Change was started by a team from the United States, the music schools funded by the Foundation are run through local management and teachers, and some of the funds raised go toward necessities like clean water and school supplies as well. But the real goal of the Playing for Change movement, as stated by Mahamadou Diabaté, director of Ecole de Musique de Kirina, is to “bring peace where politicians are failing; this is where music always works,” the site said.

Diabaté appears to be right, as the connections made through Playing for Change inspired the students and teachers of the school in Thailand to hold a benefit concert for victims of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Liu, a 14-year-old who attends the school in Bangkok remarked that besides more tangible benefits, “I learn also about how to live with others, how to live in harmony and how to look after the younger ones and after my friends.”

The idea that music education can enhance personal growth is not unique to the Playing for Change Foundation and is one that the government of Venezuela has embraced through El Sistema. Started by an economist and musician named José Antonio Abreu in 1975, El Sistema now offers free music classes to more than 787,000 Venezuelan children and has spread to more than 35 countries. Opportunities range from rhythm classes for preschoolers to positions in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. Instead of focusing on peace and connectedness as Playing for Change does, El Sistema’s vision is to provide the “opportunity for intellectual, spiritual, and professional growth, rescuing children and adolescents from an empty, disoriented, and deviant youth.” Those are ambitious goals for a music program, and indeed El Sistema has been criticized for its strict regimentation and promotion of Western classical music.

Whether or not music can truly lift children from poverty is difficult to measure and may depend on your values, but as a Playing for Change student in Nepal said, “Music is an indispensable part of life – you cannot live without music,” and when music education is available for free, fewer people have to.


About Author

Nikki Eller

Nikki Eller writes on environmental issues for Humanosphere, and is currently a Master of Public Health student at the University of Washington. A neuroscience major in college, she later served with the Peace Corps in Peru and worked for the UW Department of Global Health. Contact her at