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Scenes from Playing for Change Day

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When Indianapolis resident Jade Coley saw the Playing for Change music video several years ago, she knew she was witnessing something special. Coley, 21, an aspiring actress, model and vocalist, has been involved in the Indianapolis arts scene since she was a teenager. Saturday’s Playing for Change Day event was the first major community function that she had helped to organize, but the cause has long been dear to her heart. For Coley, the struggle of the people of West Africa is especially moving.

“Their music is thousands of years old and it’s disappearing because of politics and poverty, “ she said. “It's really heartbreaking to think of how rooted their traditions are and how its just being stripped from them.”

Coley's efforts led to Saturday's local edition of Playing for Change Day, which saw the sidewalks of Mass Ave come alive with street musicians as part of a worldwide fundraiser for music education. The day’s events — coordinated on a global level by the Playing for Change Foundation — aimed to inspire and connect people worldwide through the common language of music, while at the same time raising funds to establish music and art schools in low-income communities.

Coley had recently become an active member of Indy’s Acoustic Music Meetup, a project and web portal that provides a place where local artists can connect with other musicians to plan jam sessions and concerts. After she and fellow Meetup member “Philadelphia Phil” Christopher got the info on Playing for Change Day, Coley and Phil began a month-long whirlwind planning effort to bring the event to Indianapolis. Drawing support from local businesses like Starbucks, Global Gifts, the Art Bank and Old Point Tavern, the event soon became a community effort. For Phil, it was a welcome chance to invigorate the Indianapolis street scene.

“Its just the idea, the whole playing for change philosophy is that music brings people together, it unites people,” said Phil on Saturday. “We don’t have that energy on the street in Indianapolis. It’s in places like Earth House where you have to go find it, but we don’t have it out here.”

To stir up the vibe, Phil called upon Indiana reggae-funk artist Kwanzaa Popps and his IRB Sound band to headline the event. The day also included performances by new-grass ensemble the Millbranch String Theory and bluegrass tunesters The Punkin’ Holler Boys. The lineup’s variety of genres was consistent with the global flavor of the day, with acts ranging from folk to funky reggae, classic rock and everything in between. Several artists crossed the state to come play, but many came from just around the block.

The day’s events were centered around several points on the Avenue, mainly on the sidewalks outside of Starbucks, Global Gifts, and the Art Bank. At each station, volunteers were on hand and eager to speak about the cause, passing out info on the Foundation and collecting donations. Coley and her fellow volunteers noticed that the Art Bank wasn’t drawing the crowd they wanted, so they moved it to a small park at Mass Ave and Park.

“[The Art Bank] was sort of our main focal point as far as the bands that were coming together for it, so we moved it down here,” said Coley. “I think it turned out really good because this is a beautiful spot and it’s been the heart of it all really.”

Experienced professional musicians collaborated with local music dabblers that turned up to try their hand. One such local, ukelele player and volunteer Jim “Blacktop” Kelly, strummed some classic tunes outside Starbucks, with volunteer Barry Banks joining in to sing from time to time. The welcoming atmosphere encouraged some passers-by to chime in and sing.

Back at the park, local musician Chris McShay organized a two-hour set of musicians he has met while running Wednesday's open stage at Red Lion Grog House. McShay, who also played with his own band at the park stage, has long been an advocate for revealing hidden talents.

“That’s what we all talk about: ‘Wow, isn’t it amazing that all these people are coming out of the woodwork,'" he said. “We’re all drawn to the spirit of the idea of expressing and sharing.”

Throughout the day, band members from each of the headlining acts collaborated for several open jams. In front of Starbucks, I came across one such collaboration, a jam between the Punkin’ Holler Boys’ Ralph Jeffers and Reacharounds frontman Scott Sanders. The duo explored some original Punkin’ Holler Boys tunes, tongue-in-cheek Bluegrass ballads about life in the holler and cold-hearted women. Jeffers’s voice is warm, and he delivers his subtle comedy with true bluegrass charm.

The evening closed out with singer Kwanzaa Popps and the IRB Sound at the Chatterbox. The band, consisting of bassist Jeff Hoffer, keyboardist Joseph Burton, and drummer Jerry Gates, played a tight set with a solid groove, working from a repertoire including both original funk-reggae fusion tunes and classic reggae covers. Burton’s keys stood out, his synth settings leaving impressions of a much large ensemble. The group was joined onstage by Trinidadian recording artist and singer Sharlene Boodram, whose vocals provided a final authentic touch.

When I left the Box around 9 p.m., Jade Coley and Phila Phil had taken to the stage to join the jam, a closing celebration of a hard day’s work. The day even earned a nod from the Playing for Change Foundation yesterday, when the promotional video for the Indianapolis event was showcased on the homepage of the international site. The music video, produced by Gabriel Harley, features a performance by Philadelphia Phil, Kwanzaa Popps, IRB Sound, Boodram, and Coley.

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