Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Playing for Change: Street musicians unite world through songs

From Isha Sesay, CNN
March 20, 2012 -- Updated 1122 GMT (1922 HKT)
Titi Tsira (left) from South Africa and Mermans Kenkosenki (middle) and Jason Tamba (right) from the Democratic Republic of Congo are some of the African musicians representing the continent in Playing for Change. Titi Tsira (left) from South Africa and Mermans Kenkosenki (middle) and Jason Tamba (right) from the Democratic Republic of Congo are some of the African musicians representing the continent in Playing for Change.
HIDE CAPTION
Playing for Change
Playing for Change
Manu Chao
Bono
Playing for Change
Tinariwen
Playing for Change
Vusi Mahlasela
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Playing For Change is a multimedia music movement with millions of followers
  • Over 150 musicians from 25 countries have joined forces to spread a message of peace
  • They're also involved in the work of building schools for music education in Africa and beyond
  • The band's version of Stand By Me has over 40 million views on YouTube alone

Editor's note: Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

New York (CNN) -- Can buskers from around the world inspire an international peace movement?

That's the idea behind "Playing for Change," a multimedia movement designed to break down global barriers and connect people of every race through the power of music.

More than 150 -- mostly street -- musicians from 25 countries have joined their voices to spread their message of peace and create a truly global phenomenon with millions of followers across the world.

It all started in 2004, when Grammy award-winning producer Mark Johnson set off on a musical journey to capture street musicians around the world and combine their voices together.

Bringing his mobile studio and cameras with him, Johnson's mission led him and his small crew to an escapade across the globe -- they tracked the street musicians, put headphones on them and started recording each of their parts, before blending it all together to create unique versions of classic songs, such as "Stand By Me."

Bringing the world together through song
'Playing for Change'
Building music schools in townships

The powerful and versatile performances were mixed and posted online, quickly becoming a worldwide sensation. The band's version of the Ben E. King classic -- which interwove the performances of 18 street musicians, including a South African choir -- has become an internet hit with more than 40 million views on YouTube alone.

Read more: Ladysmith Black Mambazo: How we inspired Mandela

The band's bestselling CD/DVD set "Playing for Change: Songs Around The World" was also a big hit, debuting at number 10 on Billboard's Pop Chart in April 2009.

The recordings gave rise to the Playing for Change Foundation, an initiative aiming to inspire, educate and empower youth in Africa and other developing regions by building music schools in communities from Ghana and South Africa to Mali and Tibet.

"We are building schools to give those kids who are deprived...to give them a chance to express themselves tomorrow -- at least they can learn music, they can be confident, they can learn how to dance, they can be somebody," says honey-voiced Mermans Kenkosenki from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the main singers of Playing for Change.

Kenkosenki, along with his compatriot Jason Tamba and Titi Tsira from South Africa, are some of the African voices representing the continent in the movement.

They share the stage with musicians from the Netherlands to the United States as part of an international touring band that brings artists of all backgrounds together, raising money and awareness for the foundation.

"There are people who play music for the fame, for money, and there are people who play for the love of it," says Kenkosenki, who is also the frontman and founder of the band Afro Fiesta.

There are people who play music for the fame, for money, and there are people who play for the love of it.
Mermans Kenkosenki, Playing for Change

See also: Kanya King: MOBO founder's top 5 pop picks

The foundation's first school was opened in the spring of 2009 in Gugulethu, a township a few miles outside of Cape Town, South Africa.

"You got so many lost young kids that their parents don't work, they are unemployed and the kids get to hang around in the streets, they don't get to go to the school because there is no money to send them," says Tsiri who is from Gugulethu.

"This school being built in that township is giving that child a chance, a chance to get a free education, get a skill of music and become a professional musician and be the breadwinner of their family," she adds.

So far, the foundation has been running eight programs, working with over 600 children and creating more than 150 jobs.

"It is a great feeling to give a child a skill," says Tsiri. "It is the best movement ever -- it is really making a huge change and I am very happy being a part of it."

It is the best movement ever -- it is really making a huge change and I am very happy being a part of it.
Titi Tsira, Playing for Change

The Playing for Change roster also includes world-renowned artists such as Manu Chao, Tinariwen, Vusi Mahlasela and Bono. Songs they've covered include classics such as "I'd Rather Go Blind," "Gimme Shelter," "(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay and many more."

"When you look at us you see in each of us a different character," says Tamba, a skilful guitar player. "Everyone is doing their thing, it's not following somebody but is bringing what he has deep in there [heart] and together that brings the fire."

Read also: Meet Asa, African pop legend in the making

Last year, Playing for Change also joined forces with the United Nations to present "United," an original song penned to raise awareness about the opportunities and challenges arising from life in a planet populated by seven billion people.

In the acoustic guitar-driven anthem, Kenkosenki sings lines like "I want to see the world united" before crooning in Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in parts of the DRC.

He is then joined by a host of singers across the world, who deliver their parts in Arabic, Hebrew and other languages.

"The whole world played the music," says Kenkosenki. "We need to be together to listen to each other -- that's how it should be, bringing people from different cultures to work together, that to me is powerful."

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
Through a variety of exhibitions including one signed off by the artist himself, Nigeria is presenting J.D. Okhai Ojeikere to the world one last time.
September 8, 2014 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
Neurosurgeon Kachinga Sichizya talks about caring for newborns and mothers from underprivileged backgrounds.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1508 GMT (2308 HKT)
Mulatu Astake may be the father of a musical genre: Ethio-jazz. But when he talks about the art form, he tends to focus on its scientific merits.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
U.S. response to Ebola is key for setting global example, writes global health advocate Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1222 GMT (2022 HKT)
One of the most debilitating medical conditions in sub-Saharan Africa isn't fatal. In fact, it's easily curable.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 0953 GMT (1753 HKT)
Daniel
Kenyan funny man Daniel "Churchill" Ndambuki chooses five emerging comics from the continent to keep an eye on -- they are going to be big!
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1044 GMT (1844 HKT)
African contemporary art is thriving, says author Chibundu Onuzo.
November 3, 2014 -- Updated 1355 GMT (2155 HKT)
Amos Wekesa has seen a lot of changes in his country. Today, the self-made millionaire oversees Great Lakes Safaris, one of the largest tour operators in Uganda.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1010 GMT (1810 HKT)
Photographer Ernest Cole made it his life mission to capture the injustice of apartheid in South Africa.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
In the largely male-dominated world of the motorsport, South African superbike racer Janine Davies is an anomaly.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1848 GMT (0248 HKT)
Athi-Patra Ruga,
For anyone that needs convincing that African art is the next big thing, they need look no further than 1:54, the London-based contemporary African art fair.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1557 GMT (2357 HKT)
A growing list of popular African authors have been steadily picking up steam --and fans -- across the globe over the last several years.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1835 GMT (0235 HKT)
South Africa Music Legends stamps
Artist Hendrik Gericke puts a spotlight on iconic musical legends from South Africa in these incredible monochrome illustrations.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT