“What key is it in, Robbie?” Ringo Starr, sitting behind a drum set, asks Robbie Robertson over the phone. Ringo nods. “F-demented!” What happens next is a joyous cover of “The Weight,” with Robertson reprising the recording’s soulful intro lick. A series of musicians from all over the world – Marcus King, Lukas Nelson, the Japanese guitar virtuoso Char, Congo soul singer Mermens Mosengo and more – all add their own flavor to the classic from different locations.
The project comes from Playing For Change, a group dedicated to “breaking down the boundaries and overcome distances between people.” That includes schools 15 music schools across 11 countries, documentaries and viral videos bringing artists from different cultures together; the group has released videos for “Redemption Song,” “What’s Going On” and more. “The Weight” was done on an epic scale, a year and a half of production over five continents. “We made it brick by brick, starting with Robbie,” says co-founder Mark Johnson, a Grammy-winning producer-engineer who’s worked with Paul Simon, Keith Richards and more. “That’s what makes this special. We could never have never assembled this group in the studio. You need to go there, and then when you go there, you’re where they feel comfortable. You hear that in the music.” Here, Johnson explains how it all came together.
How did you get everyone to play at the same tempo, in the same key, so seamlessly?
We had built a mobile recording studio with the same equipment I used to use [recording with] Paul Simon at the Hit Factory. And in the beginning, we just powered it with golf cart batteries, car batteries. Now I have little battery packs so we traveled the world with a mobile studio, great equipment and some cameras and this one we started off with Robbie Robertson playing guitar. So we went into the studio and made a demo in the right key, the right tempo, so he could put on headphones and play along.
And then as we traveled the world, we would deconstruct [the track.] So Ringo would replace the drums. Hutch [James “Hutch” Hutchinson”] would replace the bass. Everywhere I go, I’m putting headphones on musicians, and they’re listening to whatever preceded them and playing along. And that’s how we built it as we went from country to country. I think in this video, we went to about ten different countries.
What was the most special moment?
I think there were two. Obviously Robbie Robertson has been a big hero of mine, so recording him was a dream. And also recording in the Middle East, because that’s what this whole project’s about. In a world where so many things are dividing us, it’s important to show people the connections and how easy the world gets along when the music plays. So when you’re able to cut between Ringo Starr, Robbie Robertson and an Oud player in the Middle East, you see how seamless we all get along. And that was a good statement: to show people first the music is timeless, but it’s also universal. Everyone in the world can connect to each other.
Where did you record in the Middle East?
Bahrain. We worked with Sheikh Abdullah from Bahrain. He has a beautiful recording studio and is just a big supporter; it’s not easy to go to that part of the world and just show up. And he had been a big fan of Playing for Change after he had seen “Stand By Me” and “One Love” playing around the world. So he approached us about how can we use music as a tool to end the stereotype of terrorism; by adding Arabic musicians, he would help us get to the region safely, help us find the right musicians, and then we integrate them into the songs just as a tool to show everybody how easy it is to get along.
How do you explain what Playing for Change is?
I would say Playing for Change is a movement uniting and connecting people all over the world through music. And in order to do that, you need to do it in different ways, so we create songs around the world, videos where all these musicians from different countries who never met play songs together. Those go online, and that kind of becomes a viral and a digital way for people to see the world. Then we realize that this doesn’t mean anything if we don’t give back to the people. So we created the Playing for Change foundation ten years ago, and we build music and art schools all over the world, and then we connect all those kids together like the videos. Kids in America meet kids in West African and they see it’s the home of the blues, not the home of Ebola. We get to reinvent how people see the world through the lens of music. Instead of showing people with guns, we show people with guitars. Playing for Change is about opening up how people see the world through the lens of music and art. We had the for-profit business that supports grown-up musicians, and a non-profit that supports children. And all our schools are free and the communities run them, so they all have the culture of where they’re from. We have 15 schools now.
Did Robbie come up with the idea?
Robbie and [his son] Sebastian had seen “All Along the Watchtower,” which we had released a few years ago and they loved it. And they said “Listen, why don’t you consider doing this for ‘The Weight?'”” It was a chance to make something for him – it’s a chance for Sebastian to promote a legacy for his father, and for us to take an amazing song around the world with a legend.
He’s so proud of it. He told me the other day that it was a dream come true for him to see it. All the musicians on it really moved him, to see how his music is able to travel all over the world. A musician like Mermans Mosengo; he comes from the Congo. He was smuggled out of the Congo in an empty oil tanker to get to South Africa, where he became a refugee. A musician like that plays music to stay alive. A guy who comes from one of the most dangerous places in the world realizes that music is the ammunition we need to move forward. It’s not guns, it’s not violence. I think anyone who sees somebody come from something so difficult and persevere, it just inspires you.
What was it like working with Ringo?
Just doing anything with Ringo was a dream come true. His performance is amazing. And his smile. He has such an infectious smile. He and Robbie really are a spark of what this whole project is about. You can do something in your life that can inspire millions of people. When he played drums, that opened a new door for us. Because that sound had never been on a version of “The Weight,” so that gave us the opportunity to make this a unique version, and make it special.