Global music project brings message to New Orleans _lowres

Photo provided by Press Here Publicity -- A band of international musicians, Playing For Change includes New Orleans musician 'Grandpa' Elliott Small, center.

New Orleans is well-represented in the latest work from Playing for Change, a global recording project that seeks to bring people together through music.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Glen David Andrews and French Quarter street musician “Grandpa” Elliott Small are among 180 performers from 31 countries who participate in the CD/DVD set “Playing for Change 3: Songs Around the World.”

Small has been a beloved member of Playing for Change since 2009. The blind singer and harmonica player co-starred in the first song that Playing for Change released, a remake of the 1961 Ben E. King hit “Stand by Me,” featuring 35 musicians from 10 countries.

Small will be playing a hometown gig when the “Peace Through Music” summer tour arrives at Tipitina’s on Thursday.

Producer-engineer Mark Johnson co-founded the globe-circling Playing for Change concept in 2005.

He and his crew carried their cameras and mobile recording studio to five continents, seeking to bring people together through music.

The idea worked: Playing for Change’s “Stand by Me” video has been viewed online 100 million times.

The group’s CDs and DVDs sold more than 550,000 units. The band that grew from the concept made the rounds of late-night TV talk shows and toured the world.

Initially, Small, still performing at his regular spot on Royal and Toulouse streets, didn’t know that the “Stand by Me” video in which he co-stars had become an Internet sensation.

“People was coming to me in droves,” he told The Advocate in 2010. “I said, ‘Lord, what happened here?’ People saw it on the computer, but I didn’t. I was the last one to see it.”

Small finally saw the video, just before he lost what little vision he still had.

“I got close to the screen,” he said. “Then I really kind of saw it. That thing was so beautiful. It was beautiful like the people explained it. It got to me the way the people explained it. A lot of people couldn’t express the feeling it gave them. A lot of them, the tears came from they eyes.”

Small has since become an audience favorite during the Playing for Change band’s international tours.

“All over the world, they treat Grandpa like Elvis,” principal Playing for Change organizer Johnson said last month. “The best moments of my life are walking him out on that stage. He squeezes my hand when people start screaming. It’s amazing.”

Small, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and bluesman Keb’ Mo’ recorded “Down by the Riverside” for the new Playing for Change CD/DVD set.

“It was a dream to get Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the record,” Johnson said. “After we filmed in the streets in New Orleans, we recorded ‘Down by the Riverside’ at Preservation Hall. We also recorded gospel musicians in the Congo and street musicians in Serbia. It’s amazing to hear Americans and Serbians and Congolese all singing ‘I’m not going to study war no more.’ ”

Preservation Hall’s creative director, Ben Jaffe, agreed to participate after Johnson sent the “Stand by Me” video to him.

“ ‘Stand by Me’ is the ice breaker,” Johnson said. “Most people want to be involved after they see it.”

Another of the project’s guests, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, contacted Johnson after he saw and heard Playing for Change’s rendition of the Stones classic “Gimme Shelter.”

“He said, ‘Man, I want to play on the next record. Pick any song you want, and I’ll play it,’ ” Johnson recalled.

Richards contributed to “Words of Wonder,” a song from his 1992 solo album, “Main Offender.” Featuring Keb’ Mo’, a group of Aztec Indians and Playing for Change band members Titi Tsira and Roberto Luti, “Words of Wonder” segues into Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up.”

“Playing for Change 3” also features Toots Hibbert, of reggae group Toots and the Maytalls fame, ska pioneer Ernest Ranglin, eclectic American singer-guitarist Taj Mahal and horn players from the Congo performing “Reggae Got Soul.”

“Reggae works so well for us because there’s a lot of space in the music,” Johnson explained. “You can add 50 musicians and still have space.”

In 2013, Playing for Change joined rock star and former Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant for a five-stadium tour of Australia. Excited though the band members were about their Down Under trek, Small as well as African members of the international group of musicians in the band hadn’t heard of Plant or Led Zeppelin.

“But it was incredible,” Johnson said. “Robert Plant gave us an hour set and the band got standing ovations. And I remember Robert coming in the dressing room and holding on to Grandpa Elliott’s hand, saying, ‘Grandpa, how I am supposed to go on the stage after you?’

“Grandpa had no idea who he was. So Grandpa was like, ‘Ah, it’s alright, man. You’ll be OK.’ ”