Imagine the farthest reaching global talent show ever, but one where all the contestants are kids who grew up scavenging and struggling in some of the planet’s poorest communities. Instead of picking through rags, they’re picking out ragas at ashrams following the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. Instead of scrounging for their next meal in the streets of Granada, Nicaragua, they’re scouring their imaginations for the perfect lyrics.
But this isn’t some fanciful remake of Slumdog Millionaire; it’s for real and its spirit resounds on Global Lingo (Project Ahimsa; released today, August 11, 2009), which unites the youthful world talent cultivated by Project Ahimsa, its musician friends-Michael Franti, Funkadesi, Sly & Robbie to name a few-and its NGO partners around the globe whose dozens of programs have transformed children’s lives through music. And in this talent show called life the kids are not competing for prizes, they are going against all odds for their very survival.
Project Ahimsa, founded as a nonviolent response to post 9.11 hate-crimes in the United States of America, raises funds the fun way-via star-studded benefit performances as well as outreach to committed philanthropists. These resources soon become microgrants of a few thousand dollars each that support a music teacher or instrument purchase by local non-profits from Thailand to Tanzania , often working with kids who’ve spent more time in the school of hard knocks than in a classroom. So far the organization has created 70 grants in fourteen countries serving 10,000 kids.
"When we started Project Ahimsa, we wanted to focus on cross-cultural understanding through music," explains Project Ahimsa co-founder and album executive producer Vijay Chattha. "Out of all the things kids need, why music? It instills discipline, builds confidence and increases communication between kids, family, and the greater world, all tools for success no matter where you’re from," notes Robin Sukhadia, who was so moved by his first contact with the organization’s work on a trip to India that he eventually became Project Ahimsa’s international grants program director "Music is very calming, especially for kids coming in from the streets. It’s one of the few ways they have to express themselves in a nonviolent way.
"It’s cool: at the benefit shows we put on here in the States, the artists range from the Black Eyed Peas to Karsh Kale. These artists play to raise money for the next generation of underserved artists. It’s a circle of support," Chattha smiles.
Sukhadia got to see this transformation in action when he arrived, purely by chance, at Madav Sadhna, an NGO based at the Gandhi ashram in Ahmedabad, India, right as a check from Project Ahimsa, an organization he had never heard of at the time. After Madav Sadhna’s staff asked for help setting up a music program from Sukhadia, he canvassed the local street kids and their families to try and figure out what they needed.
"I spent next three weeks visiting schools, talking to kids, finding out what instruments they had and what teachers were around, instead of just buying instruments that might not have fit their needs," Sukhadia recalls. "We determined that music was incredibly lacking. In most cases, public schools in the area had no music instruments, and if they did, they were locked up in cabinet and not accessible to kids. But the kids were hungry for music and loved singing and drumming."
The kids so inspired Sukhadia (a tabla-player himself known as Tablapusher) and musical colleague JBoogie that they sampled the children’s voices to power tracks like "Speak it." "Artists use samples all the time," muses Chattha, "but how often to they go to the slums of India to get them?"
The kids, whether sampled or performing their own originals, steal the Global Lingo show and prove that music can do more than soothe or educate street-frazzled youth; it can completely turn their lives around.
Ganesh Barriya, featured on "Liberation 3000" and "He Manov Visvaas," was a former rag picker from the desperately poor Ahmedabad slums who at fourteen had never gotten a crack at an education. He came to Madav Sadhna hoping to get training in crafts that would better feed his struggling family and give him a chance to learn.
Instead, he discovered a voice that charmed his community and changed his life forever: Ganesh began to earn money from his newly learned crafts and his gorgeous voice while still attending school full time, with the support of his parents. "I got to visit him at his home, and it was really powerful and humbling," Sukhadia reflects. "He lives off the side of one of the busiest highways in a small tin shack with his five brothers and his parents. His parents are so proud of him. His street kid friends who still pick rags look up to him. Every day is difficult; they don’t have electricity or running water. But his involvement in this CD is a big step forward," toward a musical apprenticeship with a master performer and a brighter future as a professional musician.
"When we presented Ganesh’s vocals to DJ Chang, he was able to lay the groundwork for Krishna Kanaya (dj Chang’s Indian Bass Remix)- pulling together something amazing in about two months," says Project Ahimsa Director and Global Lingo co-Producer James Kuzin. "As word spread, Chang’s efforts generated interest among established artist-producers like Cubanix (He Manav Visvaas – Cubanix Inspiration Mix) and Amit Shoham (Boda Nathu), while inspiring the work of fast rising talents such as Nilla Green who composed Liberation 3000."
The young, striking Coco Peila ("Any Day Now") hails from a world away, the rough neighborhoods of Oakland, California, but made a similar self discovery thanks to help from Youth Movement Records, a youth-driven music non-profit that uses a recording label as its model to teach kids how to make music and run a business. Peila’s nimble voice and thoughtful lyrics-and a little help from a swelling internet fan base-have opened unthinkable doors: "She went from Youth Music Records to studying music full time in Florida to get her Bachelor’s in Recording Arts. She really wants to make a career out of this," Chattha beams.
The cycle of support encouraged by Project Ahimsa’s endeavors comes full circle on Global Lingo, an album that’s part tribute to these kids’ stunning accomplishments and part benefit for others like them still waiting to be touched by music. "Basically we wanted to find a way to connect these children and their stories and music from all around the world into one experience," Chattha explains. "It’s a progress report on what we’ve been doing these past seven years. So we got artists who had performed at our events together with the children in the programs we fund. The kids want to learn and get involved, and they wanted to record."
To turn diverse sounds into a single sonic experience, Chattha turned to Project Ahimsa’s friends, DJs and electronic music gurus like DK Bollygirl and dimmSummer, to bring the tracks together into one DJ set that flows from funky Afrobeat (Rocky Dawuni’s "Africa for Learn") to Punjabi reggae (Funkadesi’s "Dolare").
"Our main goal in the end," Chattha reflects, "was just to demonstrate what these kids-the real ‘slumdog musicaires’ I guess you could call them-can do if they have an opportunity. That people from around the world can make something connected on a universal theme: music itself." Sukhadia adds, "Music can heal and connect communities. We all just need to understand one another. Global Lingo proves it can happen through music."
Available on iTunes and GlobalLingoMusic.com