Playing For Change has always been about the journey we all take together to find great music and connect people through that music. There is always a sense of discovery whenever the Playing For Change crew arrives in a new city or records a new musician.
This past October, Playing For Change was asked to play a concert in New Orleans. It was there that I discovered a man named Grandpa. Our crew had filmed Grandpa for the first time a few years ago, but I did not travel with the crew to New Orleans at that time. I had only seen and heard Grandpa through performances we had filmed and recorded.
Our crew was picked up from the hotel in a shuttle bus and taken over to our rehearsal space. There were musicians from Spain, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Los Angeles, and New Orleans all coming together to help spread the message of Playing For Change.
As we walked into the front door of the rehearsal building, I saw a man with a big white beard and overalls standing quietly in the corner of the lobby. I was certain that it was Grandpa. I walked over to him and said, “Grandpa?”
“Yes, indeed,” he replied.
Grandpa explained to me that he is almost completely blind and will need help getting around over the next couple of days. I told him, “I’m your man.” This was the beginning of my journey in New Orleans with Grandpa.
We kicked off the rehearsal and it was like these musicians had been playing together for years. They all worked together so naturally. It was apparent that every one of them was extremely talented, and that they all had embraced the values of listening to each other and working as a team to achieve the right sound.
Grandpa is a mean harmonica player. He had with him this small side bag that was stuffed to the brim with harmonicas. He must have had 15 harmonicas in that little bag. Grandpa explained how each of them was in a specific spot. He had them organized a certain way so when he’s performing in the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, he can do everything himself. If he squinted really hard and held the harmonica about an inch away from his eye, he was able to make out which key was listed on the harmonica. Working with Grandpa, I started to pick up on all of the little things that not having eyesight would make incredibly difficult.
After our rehearsal, Mark Johnson says, “Hey Grandpa, we’d like to take you out to a nice big meal. Would you like to join us?” Grandpa, with a big grin on his face says,”You bet your sweet bippy!” And off we went.
There must have been 20 of us at the dinner; musicians from all over the world, and the Playing For Change crew eating together in a truly magical city, and celebrating the gift of music and its ability to help heal the world and make it a better place. I remember looking down the table and at the far end of the table was Grandpa. He had such a content look on his face as if he was saying, “these are the blessings that music brings. This is why I love what I do.”
As the meal was wrapping up, I asked Grandpa if he could take tomorrow off from playing in the French Quarter so he could rest up for the show the following night. He told me that he has to be up at 5 AM to get down to the French Quarter in order to secure a seat so he can perform and make a living. I handed him enough money so that he would be able to take the next day off.
Our next rehearsal went off without a hitch. Grandpa had presented the idea of me being his harmonica holder. Our set list at this point left Grandpa having to switch to different harmonica keys several times throughout the show. It was a little shaky at first, but after we ran through it a few times, I felt comfortable with the process.
Showtime. There must have been two thousand people assembled to see the Playing For Change Band perform in the French Quarter. Grandpa took his seat at the front of the stage. He looked so iconic sitting there gazing out over the crowd as if he could see every one of their faces.
When Grandpa and Clarence began to sing a duet version of “Change Is Gonna Come,” it felt like each harmonica note he held made my body bend to the tone. As the band played on there was such a sense of camaraderie going on between the crowd and the band. It was like everyone was thinking the same thing if we all come together through music, we really can spread a positive message throughout the world. Stop trying to build walls between all of us, and instead build bridges connecting with one another and come together as a human race.
As Grandpa left the stage, I walked him out into the crowd. He was a celebrity. Everyone was coming up to Grandpa hugging him and requesting a picture with him. He has such a positive and warm feeling about him. You just feel good being in his company, and it was so evident that it was an experience that many people shared.
As the show came to a close, Grandpa came up to each and every member of the crew and the band and thanked them all for sharing such a special few days with him. After reflecting on the past few days, I shared with Grandpa what I thought about what it must have felt like to go through that experience without having the use of his eyesight. Grandpa came up to me and said, “Thank you for helping me get around my friend. Thank you for helping me see all of the beautiful things we have just shared together.” It was at that point I felt like I was truly seeing through the eyes of Grandpa.