PORT ANGELES — Every step of the way, the story sounds implausible.
Step one: Filmmaker Mark Johnson of Los Angeles gallivants around the world, recording street musicians playing “Stand by Me,” the Ben E. King classic, to make a video that garners some 38 million views on YouTube.
Step two: Johnson records more videos with these musicians, racking up 100 million views as Playing for Change, a band of men and women from Africa, Europe and the Americas, is born.
Three: Playing for Change releases a CD and DVD that put the group on the “Today” show, “The Colbert Report” and other news outlets around the world.
Four: Playing for Change goes on tour, performs for crowds across the globe and, through the Playing for Change Foundation, raises money to build and run seven music schools in Mali, South Africa, Rwanda and Nepal.
Five: Playing for Change says yes to an invitation to Port Angeles for one concert benefiting an organization that shares its goal of bringing people together through music.
That’s Johnson’s story, told to the Peninsula Daily News on Friday as he and the band near the end of the West Coast swing of their U.S. tour.
PA show on Saturday
Their second-to-last show is at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Little Theater at Peninsula College, 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. so patrons can choose their seats and then enjoy refreshments and music by Clark Driese and his band in the adjacent Pirate Union Building, aka the PUB.
But this isn’t only a concert. Playing for Change, with its members from three continents and five nations, comes to this corner of North America for what is an altogether different fundraiser for a like-minded organization: the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts.
Tickets are $85 — and yes, that’s steep, acknowledged festival Executive Director Dan Maguire. They’re priced high because Saturday’s show is the nonprofit festival’s new annual fundraiser, which Maguire hopes will replace the fall auction.
Port Angeles has a slew of benefit auctions every year, so Maguire, who became director right after the 2010 festival, wanted to try something new.
And ever since he got this job, Maguire wanted to bring Playing for Change to town.
He saw the band as an eloquent messenger for the Juan de Fuca Festival’s programs, which include not only the Memorial Day weekend cavalcade of concerts, workshops and art shows in downtown Port Angeles, but also concerts in the fall and winter and a summer arts camp for children.
Playing for Change tickets aren’t flying out the door, however, and Maguire figures there are at least two reasons: That $85 is a lot of money, and many people don’t recognize the band’s name right off.
“But they have probably seen the video,” which is still available at www.PlayingforChange.com, Maguire said.
And while the video that broke through was “Stand by Me,” there’s now a galaxy of others.
In Brazil, Barcelona, New Orleans, Vancouver, B.C., and many other locales, Johnson has recorded Playing for Change versions of “Gimme Shelter,” “Higher Ground,” “Dock of the Bay,” “Imagine” and “Amazing Grace,” to name a few.
In Port Angeles, the band will offer such covers, Johnson promised, plus original songs. The outfit is five vocalists strong, from the white-bearded Grandpa Elliott to wiry Clarence Bekker, who moves like a teenager.
Elliott comes from the streets of New Orleans, and Bekker hails from the Netherlands, while singers Titi Tsira and Jason Tamba are South African and Congolese, respectively; guitarist Louis Mhlanga is from Zimbabwe; percussionist-vocalist Mermans Mosengo also is from the Congo. Together with four more Americans — drummer Peter Bunetta, bassist Reggie McBride, keyboardist Tom Canning and lead guitarist Renard Poche — “they are a dream to watch,” Johnson said.
As they have come up the coast through California — playing college towns such as Chico and Santa Cruz — the band has completely found its groove, he added.
“This is the most magic I’ve ever seen.”
He’s seen a lot recording around the world — yet Johnson is not jaded, judging from his descriptions.
“When I heard Titi Tsira, I fell off my chair,” he said, adding that she sounds like South Africa’s Aretha Franklin.
And Mhlanga, the Zimbabwean, is “in my opinion the greatest guitarist in the world.”
Technology, as in laptop computers for production and YouTube for reaching people directly, made the Playing for Change phenomenon possible.
But to Johnson’s mind, there is something more basic going on here.
He said music — in particular songs about friendship, love and peace — comes straight from the heart of the one who is singing.
It speaks to the heart of the listener, no matter the country of origin.
“The words they’re singing become an emotion,” Johnson said.
“The music helps you get to the sentiment behind the words.”
And so political divisions, borders, language differences — Johnson believes the musicians remind us that these are surface things.
“When we make these videos, we’re putting together people who are thousands of miles apart. They have never met,” he said of the band members.
“When they watched the videos, they fell in love with each other. And they came together to create something bigger than themselves . . . There’s never been a band in the world with this much diversity. And they have this love that is so strong.”
Amid all of the strife in this world, Johnson believes, Playing for Change is nothing less than evidence that people can, and do, understand one another’s desire for love.
The band members, after all, were born in places of great struggle, from the American South to South Africa.
As they travel from city to city, Johnson said, their mission is no more complicated than bringing people together and lightening our hearts with song.
As for Saturday’s show in Port Angeles, “there’s no better way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day,” Johnson quipped.
“These opportunities only come so often . . . and it’s important,” he added, “that we celebrate together.”
Tickets to Saturday’s Playing for Change benefit for the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts are available at Port Book and News, 104 E. First St., and via www.JFFA.org.
More information is available by phoning 360-457-5411 or visiting the Juan de Fuca Festival’s Facebook page.
Much more information, and numerous music videos are at www.PlayingforChange.com.
Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3550 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.