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Karen Stabiner

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Small Good News: Get Up, Stand Up: Mobilizing To A Global Beat

Posted: 04/27/09 10:40 AM ET

Okay, Susan Boyle has reminded us that you do not need to look beautiful to sound beautiful, and research says that music makes us happy, but we are in the middle of a global downer. Where's this generation's big picture? What's happened to the protest song?

It's on www.playingforchange.com, on a CD/DVD being released even as you read this, and available for sampling all over the internet. In a nice irony, much of it is music from the '60s. Music producer Mark Johnson heard a busker singing "Stand By Me" on a pedestrian promenade in Santa Monica, California, and got the stunningly simple idea that is the foundation of four years' work: Record that musician singing that song, have musicians around the globe record their tracks, and mix it into a truly heavenly choir. Junior Mbouta of the Congo plays the drums with a cat from Katmandu, and they may never meet, except that they have.

If you want more obvious examples of resistance to the status quo, how about that Arab/Israeli orchestra, or the Irish Protestant/Catholic teen choir?

Playing for Change is subversive in the most wonderful way, and all of you cynical, snarky policy wonks can just shut up, or go back to wonking. While we await governmental solutions, while officials consider position papers and Rand reports and treaties and rifts and new treaties and the emergence of new factions, we can - listen to music?

It's not quite that easy, but it's close. Playing for Change is a work in progress, funded in part by a collaboration with activist/producer Norman Lear, who at 86 might be forgiven if he wanted to rest on a couple of his numerous laurels. His participation challenges the rest of us to step up, and the PFC web site offers all kinds of opportunities to do so, from hosting screenings of the documentary Playing for Change: Peace Through Music to donating to help establish music schools around the world.

It's low-maintenance, small-scale activism, a nice option at a time when so many people are trying to figure out how to make their own ends meet, let alone repair somebody else's. You don't have to leave your desk, assuming you still have one to go to; you don't have to be somewhere else to contribute.

And while it's true that there is no global education strategy knit into the lyrics of "War/No More Trouble" - no hidden messages when you play these songs backwards - there is about to be a music school in the township of Guguletu, South Africa. I wish politicians all the best in their efforts to secure peace in the Middle East, but as they haven't managed to do so in my lifetime, I hold out just as much hope for the unproven tactics of the Playing For Change foundation. Songs circling the planet, shared by an itinerant producer and his crew as they visit strife-torn regions that rarely make a travel destination short list: Who's to say that this won't effect change more successfully than yet another international summit?

But you have to give in to the beat. On a recent segment of The Charlie Rose Show, world-renowned chef Ferran Adria observed through his friend and translator Jose Andres that while food touches all the senses, "music is beautiful but it is only the ear." Actually, he said it is "ruido" -- noise, but Andres kindly opted for the figurative, not the literal, meaning. Whatever Adria really meant, and with all due respect to his astonishing food - somebody strap this guy into a set of headphones, get him up onto www.playingforchange.com for five minutes, and then ask him if he'd like to change his mind.

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Karen Stabiner's most recent book is The Empty Nest. You can visit www.karenstabiner.com or write to her at guestbook@karenstabiner.com.