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The surprising magic of a COVID-era charity super-video

Performers can’t play concerts. But this remake of Peter Gabriel's ‘Biko’ shows they can still play together.

By Jim Sullivan

In the video, four women and three men from the Cape Town Ensemble sing together in a South African village. The screen cuts to singers, dancers, and drummers from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in northwestern Nevada. Yo-Yo Ma contributes thrashing, sonorous cello from his Boston office. And the man who wrote the song more than 40 years ago, Peter Gabriel, records his new vocals from his studio outside Bath, England.

The six-and-a-half-minute remake of “Biko,” Gabriel’s 1980 song about the murder of South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, became a sensation on YouTube this spring, garnering more than a million views in its first three weeks — and catching eyes for its apparent sleight-of-hand. In all, more than 25 musicians and dancers from seven countries seem to be playing all at once, their different parts building from a mournful and ominous beginning into an uplifting, transcendent crescendo. In the pandemic era, the socially distanced video embraces virtual togetherness.

Playing for Change LLC, the company that created the “Biko” video, has been making what it calls “songs around the world” productions since 2005, aiming to unite diverse cultures through musical collaboration and raise money for charitable causes. But this art form – the synchronized charity super-video – has acquired new resonance during the pandemic, driven by artists who can’t perform in concert and nonprofits that hope to evoke a sense of social solidarity. In September 2020, Patti Smith joined dozens of other artists to re-record her 1988 song “People Have the Power” for Pathway to Paris, a climate organization co-founded by her daughter, Jesse. In June, 39 Irish women collaborated virtually on a rendition of The Cranberries’ 1993 hit “Dreams” to benefit the anti-domestic-violence organization Safe Ireland.

If the pandemic increased the appeal of these videos, it also increased the challenge. For “Biko,” every performance had to be locally produced with socially distanced crews, creating technical drama and an uncharacteristic element of surprise in the editing room.

The synchronized charity super-video has acquired new resonance during the pandemic, driven by artists who can’t perform in concert.

“Prior to COVID, I would travel with a mobile recording studio and camera to each location,” says Playing for Change co-founder Mark Johnson, the video’s director. But by giving up control, he found, “You end up getting all of this magic you otherwise couldn’t have imagined.”

“Biko,” a centerpiece of Gabriel’s concerts for decades, meditates on the activist’s 1977 murder in detention at the hands of four South African policemen. After his death, Biko, a founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, became an international symbol of oppression and resistance. The lyrics to Gabriel’s song progress from a stark allusion to police torture (“It was business as usual/in police room 619”) to its conclusion, as voices rise: “The eyes of the world are watching now.”

Not long after the song’s original release, I interviewed Gabriel for The Boston Globe. “It is about the simplest thing I’ve ever written, just three chords,” he told me. He also called it “most directly political song I’ve done.”

The new video’s producer, Sebastian Robertson, says he had an “otherworldly music experience” when he first heard “Biko” as a kid. “I sat back and went on a ride. Honestly, I was forever changed,” says Robertson, the son of The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who joined Playing for Change in 2019 when the group produced a video of The Band’s song “The Weight.”

So when Playing for Change partnered with the United Nations for an event timed to the UN’s 75th anniversary — with a theme of social justice — “Biko” was an obvious choice, Robertson says. He reached out to Gabriel’s team and found them open to it.

“I tried to write the most appealing email to coerce his participation,” Robertson says. “We put together a little demo for him to hear.” Another key part of the pitch: proposing that famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, founder of the musical collective The Silk Road Ensemble, would be one of the performers.

Finding a full slate of musicians and a crew was the first part of the puzzle. In addition to string musicians from The Silk Road Ensemble, as well as the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Playing for Change recruited Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato; Los Angeles-based Japanese percussion group the TaikoProject; four drummers from the Los Angeles-based Dynamic Sound Collective; Congolese guitarist Jason Tamba; Beninese vocalist Angelique Kidjo, who performed from Paris; and American bassist and singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello.

Ndegeocello was 12 years old when “Biko” first came out. “When I heard his voice, I loved it,” she says. When asked to contribute to the new rendition — described to her as a more percussive, more tribal version — “my thought was really just, ‘Of course!’ Except for any concerns about how we’d get it done during COVID.”

For the performers, the “Biko” project offered a pandemic-era alternative to live performance and studio recording. “It’s nice to create however we can in these times,” Ndegeocello says. And “Biko” resonated anew in the latter half of 2020, after worldwide protests of racism and police violence. “People say things like this – that it’s timeless and timely,” says Ndegeocello. “They just mean that despite the progress, not enough has changed.”

For the video, the song was built in layers. Robertson first programmed a drum part, “getting the tempo right where I wanted it to be. I think it was just a touch faster than Peter’s original.” The TaikoProject and Paiute drummers were among the first recorded. Robertson tracked a basic acoustic guitar part and sent it to Gabriel, who recorded vocals from his home studio.

From there, the file passed from group to group, each adding its parts to the mix while managing pandemic-era distancing requirements. Pato was filmed by her husband, on a consumer-level video camera and a cellphone camera. Ndegeocello stood in a nature conservancy in Greenport, New York, joined by a camera operator, a sound engineer and a producer — all masked and socially distanced.

“It was pretty weird,” Ndegeocello says. “I was in a field without any other musicians. It took three hours to get all the angles and the sound and light right.”

Even getting the files back to the studio was a challenge, because the file sizes were so large — and some locations around the world, such as those in South Africa, had slower internet speeds. Some performers “had to back up their footage to a hard drive and send it to us in Los Angeles so we could add their parts to the video,” Johnson says. 

Pandemic-related delays created another level of concern. The project had a tight deadline: It was scheduled for release in February 2021, during Black History Month, with proceeds benefiting several nonprofits, including the United Nations’ Remember Slavery program.

“For us there was the terror of when it will arrive,” says Johnson. “In the past, I would be mixing and editing in the hotel room right after the shoot, but in this case, there was a lot of suspense.”

Robertson and Johnson also had to adjust the audio tracks to account for differences in the recordings’ production. “We weren’t there to capture all the audio with the same rig for every performance, so the tracks have different character from South Africa to downtown Los Angeles,” Robertson says. “But in the end, it really added to the overall character and was very telling of the time that we’re in.”

Much of the pleasure in watching the video, it turns out, comes from the segues — the director’s choices that deliver both visual and sonic shifts. The sights and sounds are different, but the transitions are seamless. There’s the slow-motion dancing of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe against the fierce joy of the TaikoProject drummers; Pato bending forward with her bagpipes and Ma beaming like a heavy metal thrash guitarist; Ndegeocello’s gritty look as she stands alone in a field; Kidjo staring directly into the camera with a quiet calm. Gabriel’s studio presence serves as an anchor, a sign of continuance, the 71-year-old singing with as much passion as he did 40 years ago. 

“As it travels, it goes through a metamorphosis,” Robertson says of the song. “It grows and grows and takes on new personalities and a new character and shape. By the time you get to the end, it’s this massive production. It built itself around the world.”

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Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.

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