Playing For Change
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
"Playing for Change" is a multi-media movement created to inspire, connect and bring peace to the world through music. A heady notion to be sure, but the world music created by the more than 100 participants will indeed rock your world. Producer and Executive Director Mark Johnson enlisted the help of musicians from the U.S., South Africa, Europe and Asia to construct the 10 track CD, and filmed many of the principal players live, recording them on street corners, in parks, and even on fire escapes.
The eclectic collection of world rhythms opens with the umpteenth version of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me." King's barking, melodramatic original was given the royal treatment with arcing (or was it aching?) strings. Frankly, I've never stood on the same emotional path that King's devotees have, so I've been at a loss to understand the song's attraction. John Lennon was my favorite Beatle, but I found his version hollow; he was just parroting Benny. Well, I've finally found a take that speaks to me on an emotional level. Since "Stand By Me" is an American pop classic, this rendition centers around a couple of street musicians based in the U.S. Roger Ridley's spoken intro let's you know his words come from his heart: "This song says no matter who you are, no matter where you go in your life, at some point in your life you're gonna need somebody to stand by you." Ridley, a bear of a man, sings the opening verse with the same gritty growl as Howlin' Wolf. As the second verse rolls around, New Orleans based bluesman Grandpa Elliot takes over. Elliot's delivery is a throwback to his peers from the Delta, circa Huddy Ledbetter. When Ridley and Elliot join together, it's like listening to a living chapter in the story of the blues; their styles may differ, but they blend together as if they've been sharing the same stage since birth. Give Mark Johnson a hand for a seamless editing job. The singers were thousands of miles apart when they were recorded.
Clarence Bekker of the Netherlands takes on the third verse. Bekker is a shouter, a modern day Wilson Pickett without the police blotter baggage with an abundance of oomph. "Stand By Me" begins to stagger a bit when the noticeable thunder of The Twin Eagle Drum Group sounds in the background. This is soul, guys, not a night at the sweat lodge. Other third world elements seem shoehorned in order for Johnson to justify his international roster. Dimitri Dolganov is certainly an accomplished cellist, but South African singer Vusi Mahlasela's brief tuneless cameo and the speaking in tongues contribution made by the Sinamuva singing group are incongruous and unnecessary. Ridley's performance stands alone, and "Stand By Me" rises of the strength of his stirring vocal.
Oh no, is that Bono singing along with the crowd in "War/Trouble No More?" For the sake of world peace, I wish it wasn't so. What a surprise -- he sounds overblown and out of place. A fiddle slides in for a solo and it has the same affect of listening to Papa John Creach play with Hot Tuna. You'll initially think, "Jeez, this doesn't fit," but it's the type of gutsy move that you'll come to appreciate. The bubbling bass and hopping percussion hold the beat, and despite Bono's self-important ego stroking, "War/Trouble No More" is an impressive blend of styles and cultures.
Peter Gabriel's original version of "Biko" had more power than the one assembled for "Playing For Change" and thus, more effect, but suffered from Gabriel's heavy-handed anxiousness to hammer home his point. The new take sounds more genuine, but is a bit more wishy washy, drained of its riot inciting intent. If Steven Biko had been forced to rely on this message to spring him from incarceration, he would have pinned a new calendar on his wall.
"Don't Worry" is a jaunty, off the cuff street sing-a-long that combines New Orleans, Reggae and African rhythms. (Phew! Don't worry. It's not that stupid "Don't Worry, Be Happy" song done by Bobby McFerrin). Israeli artist Tula, who solos without shame, has a voice that's more painful than Novocain-free root canal. If Mark Johnson had cut Tula and the wailing women of Sinamuva, "Don't Worry" would have been inspirational.
Tracey Chapman's protest folk "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution" gets a South African make over by Afro Fiesta fattened by waves of congas and a cumbersome translation into native tongue. It's got a heavy dose of Shaka Zulu traditionalism that keeps it from being completely listener friendly. Still it's more tuneful and hopeful than Tracey's dirge-like original, which was downright riveting.
Keb Mo' is a younger version of Taj Mahal, a roots bluesman with a large dose of soul who's a natural on the guitar. His spotlight tune, "Better Man," struts with confidence and a memorable ear worm chorus. "I'm make my world a better place, I'm gonna keep that smile on my face, gonna teach how to understand, gonna make myself to be a better man." It's so catchy you'll forgive the banjo solo.
One of the best songs is followed up by one of the worst. "Chanda Mama" is an accordion driven Third World wreck that sounds like carnival time in Brazil one moment and the soundtrack to a badly dubbed Japanese sci fi flick the next. It's a multi-cultural mess.
Listening to pre-pubescent urchins praising the Lord in song can be as much fun as canasta night with the nuns of St. Mary's. Try and paddle your way through the first verse of "Love Rescue Me" by Ireland's Omagh Community Youth Choir without reaching for the rye. It's sung by a high-pitched leprechaun with a sonic shillelagh to grind - fortunately the entire chorus quickly joins in to rescue the performance. The kids start to swing a bit more but still seem to be holding back, settling for a Catholic School choral gathering rather than the goodtime gospel feeling they were heading toward. Nice job, but feel free to kick it up a notch next time, kids.
Written by Sam Cooke, "A Change Is Gonna Come" became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement in the early 60s. The gospel/pop pioneer didn't live long enough to see the promise his song talks about. Cooke died a senseless, seamy death in 1964. (He was shot in his underwear at a hotel in the midst of a tryst). Although Cooke sang it with passion (the lyrics reflecting his own encounters with prejudice), subsequent covers have either been heavy-handed (The Neville Brothers) or maudlin (The Band). In other words, it packs an important message, but isn't a particularly good song.
The latest rendering of Cooke's classic by the Playing For Change Band features the thunderous vocal of Clarence Bekker, who puts the same energetic charge into the song that Otis Redding did. The next verse is taken by old school singer Grandpa Elliot who nearly holds his own with his shaky, Moms Mabley delivery. The song would have been more effective with Bekker singing it solo. I still don't like the song very much, but Bekker's conviction is impressive and it makes an effective capper to the CD.
Stand By the DVD...
The CD/DVD package features spontaneous performances of five songs plus the documentary "The Playing For Change Foundation" and the "Peace Through Music" film trailer.
If the Foundation wants to promote its program, they need look no further than the video for "Stand By Me." Watching husky Roger Ridley rip into his acoustic guitar in front of an enthusiastic gathering in California, witnessing blind Grandpa Elliot bob and weave, and watching the chords on Clarence Bekker's neck stand out as he emotes enhances the trio's performances; you can see the music coursing through them as they sing. (But please, somebody get Grandpa Elliot an upper plate!). The video for "Stand By Me" is dare I say it? Uplifting. Mission accomplished.
"One Love" is set up by an Indian musician (I didn't catch his name, my bad): "Through music we get enlightenment." Vusi Mahlasela proves to be a big man with a gentle heart, a light voice and the ability to make his voice click like he's got peanut butter stuck to the roof of his mouth. Guitarist Roberto Luti looks like a rock star and plays like one.
Tula is Israel's answer to Alanis Morisette. Unfortunately the question is "Who bays like Alanis Morisette?" But she does have a very forgiving visual presence that will distract you from her Tarzan-like delivery.
The other videos continue the routine of filming the participants as they record their parts. David Broza's rapid fire acoustic intro for "War/No More Trouble" is best appreciated when it's seen as well as heard - no, they didn't speed up the film! Unfortunately, too much is made of Bono's appearance. Lurching, swaying and screaming as if he's standing in the unforgettable fire, Bono's pompous intrusion is plenty trouble for "War/No More Trouble." Bono's countrymen, the members of the Irish Youth Community Choir, easily outperform him, and they do so without posing like a plastic rock god who's waiting to be praised.
Clarence Bekker's worrisome collapse from impressive soloist in "Stand By Me" to out of touch and out of tune screecher in "Don't Worry" is captured on film as well. But if ever there was a case of being seen and not heard it's Tula. Tula is an international ingénue, but her gasping, gaseous, gaping groans dismantle both "Don't Worry" and "Chandra Mare." And talk about being willing to sacrifice for your art - check out a smiling Junior Abata playing a full drum kit on a fire escape the size of a shoe box.
"Playing for Change" will help alter the way you look at world music. You'll wanna say toodle-de-do whenever Tula airs it out, but watching and listening to the other players as they immerse themselves in the music is really what the program is all about, and little of their emotional intent is lost in the translation. As Roger Ridley might say, you can stand by "Playing for Change."