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.
Playing for Change
Playing for Change
Manu Chao
Playing for Change
Playing for Change
Vusi Mahlasela
  • 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 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.

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
A Silverback male mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the woman from Uganda trying to save critically endangered mountain gorillas before its too late.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.