Events » Events Feature

Playing for Change

A band of street Performers travels the world



10 p.m. Sat., July 18

Tipitina's, 501 Napoleon Ave., 895-8477;

Tickets $15

Filmmaker Mark Johnson's crew records New Orleans' Grandpa - Elliott. - PHOTO COURTESY PBS
  • Photo courtesy PBS
  • Filmmaker Mark Johnson's crew records New Orleans' Grandpa Elliott.

There's no shortage of colorful and entertaining street musicians in New Orleans. Among them is Elliott Small, better known as Grandpa Elliott, a familiar face with a white beard and bluesy growl who for decades has sung for passersby in the French Quarter and heavily trafficked downtown spots. This Saturday, he's concluding a world tour by playing at Tipitina's.

  Elliott has been touring with a group known as the Playing for Change band. The international ensemble evolved from a film project by Grammy-winning producer Mark Johnson. About 10 years ago, while working at the Hit Factory in New York City, Johnson was commuting home on the subway when he noticed a large crowd gathered around street artists performing on the platform. Observing how the energy of the group captivated the audience, he had a revelation.

  "I realized that the best music I've heard in my life was on the way to the studio, not in the studio," Johnson says.

  He also noticed the diverse band was playing some unfamiliar instruments, and a vocalist was singing in a language he didn't recognize. The crowd in the subway was equally diverse. Johnson was struck by the international connections made through music. He set out on a global grass-roots campaign, gathering the names of street artists from South Africa to Santa Monica, Calif., through word of mouth. Four years ago, he began traveling the world to film and record the musicians playing in parks and on street corners. What started as a CD/DVD project became an Internet sensation when he posted a version of "Stand by Me" on YouTube. The video features musicians from around the globe, including Grandpa Elliott, singing and playing a variety of instruments. It's garnered 12 million views, and the track is included on a compilation titled Songs from Around the World, which climbed into Billboard's top 10 albums in May.

  "It came together very organically," Johnson says of the current band's 10 members. "We're building a family around the world."

  All the musicians in the Playing for Change band are featured on the album and in a documentary set to air on PBS later this summer. The New Orleans show culminates a four-city tour that started at the Glastonbury Festival in Great Britain and passed through Santa Monica and Los Angeles, including an appearance on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.

  New Orleans is fortunate to be on the limited tour, but it's no accident. Johnson came to New Orleans seeking Elliott's unique voice for the project, and because this is his "favorite music city in America." Playing for Change's mission is to bring together artists from every religion, race, creed and continent through the power of music, Johnson says.

  "We want to show people that in a world with so much division, we have this connection through music," he says.


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