With mashes and ‘urban campfires,’ nonprofit aims to rekindle public music-making

South African musician Bakithi Kumalo, who laid down the famous bass lines on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album. PHOTOS BY TODD FRANCE

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | City Winery is known for great live music, wine and cheese. But on a Sunday afternoon early last month, it was all about acoustic guitars, around 300 of them — and strummers in equal number plucking away at them — for the fourth annual Guitar Mash benefit.

About a third of the audience was young children, with the rest adults, including many parents playing guitar side by side along with their kids. Here and there among the crowd could be spotted an occasional mandolin, banjo or ukulele.

On stage Mark Stewart, Guitar Mash’s ponytailed and high-energy musical director, and a rotating group of superstar musicians, led the room in twanging and singing along to classic rock songs like Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” Tom Petty’s “Free Falling,” the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree” and jazzier Afro-inflected fare like Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Your Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al.”

The musicians included top talents Jerry “The Duke of the Dobro” Douglas, Jackie Green of the Black Crowes, Sonya Kitchell, Bakithi Kumalo, whose bass lines propelled Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, Binky Griptite, Bill Kirchen, a.k.a. “The Master of the Telecaster,” and sixstring prodigy Brandon Niederauer, who plays Zack in the new “School of Rock” Broadway musical.

Lending their local voices to a rousing rendition of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” were members of the Lower Eastside Girls Club.

The songs’ guitar chords and lyrics were projected on a screen to the left of the stage, so that everyone could follow along. And the chord charts are kept up on Guitar Mash’s Web site for awhile after each event. The benefit was live-streamed, and people as far away as Brazil, the U.K. and Italy also joined in.

Founded three years ago by Rebecca Weller, the nonprofit Guitar Mash creates participatory events for guitarists and music lovers of diverse ages, abilities and backgrounds.

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Jamming together at the end of the benefit, from left, Mark Stewart, Jerry Douglas, Binky Griptite, Bill Kirchen, Sonya Kitchell and Jackie Green.


Weller, who lived for years in Tribeca, currently resides in Soho. She previously worked on special projects at Lincoln Center, where she co-founded the popular Midsummer Night Swing series, free dance- and music-related events situated around the performing arts center’s fountain.

After 9/11, Weller ambitiously tried to start a museum of world culture for children at the World Trade Center. She was in talks with Mexican architect Enrique Norten to design the $25 million project. But in 2005, Weller had just had her third child, and ultimately decided it was too big an undertaking for her at that time.

“I ended up putting that nonprofit on hold indefinitely, but Guitar Mash came out of that nonprofit,” she said.

Weller grew up in Flatbush in a household where folk and classical music were always playing on the radio or the record player. As a young girl, she studied and performed classical piano very seriously, but before high school, had decided she would not pursue a music career.

At the same time, she also loved the popular rock music of her formative years, including The Clash, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac and Squeeze.



“I think Pete Seeger is kind of our unofficial founding father,” she said of Guitar Mash, “really, in his belief that music is a personal connection and also a thing that can change the world. When we did a flash mob last year, our teens played Stephen Stills and Pete Seeger at Columbus Circle. Our teens love the idea that you can use music to effect change on issues that are important to them — it might be gender identification, it might be immigration, it might be poverty.”

Guitar Mash doesn’t run classes, but holds different events throughout the year, with the goal of creating a movement. At one event held in a Soho home, the mashers evoked the atmosphere of an “urban campfire” by playing an image of a flickering blaze on their cell phones.

“We want to make it right and intimidation free,” Weller said. “It is a jam — that’s exactly what it is. And we bring in ‘A’-list artists, which just ups it a notch.”

The pro musicians get paid a stipend, a few hundred dollars. They play at Guitar Mash, Weller said, “because we’re a nonprofit group and our mission is connecting people through music, and they believe in the mission.”

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As a warm-up for singing, the audience hummed while holding sticks in their mouths. It looked a little kooky, but it worked!


Indeed, more than one of the artists at last month’s benefit mash at City Winery, marveled, “I never saw so many guitars in one place!”

As for Stewart, he grew up in a musical family out in the Midwest. He has worked with Paul Simon since 1998 as a guitarist, singer, multi-instrumentalist and music director. On the recent Paul Simon-Sting tour, he worked to meld the two men’s bands together.

“He makes everyone incredibly comfortable, but has worked with the highest, highest stars,” Weller noted.

Rebecca Weller, the founder of Guitar Mash.

Stewart, who lives in Brooklyn, said Guitar Mash’s ultimate goal is “to connect individuals to their birthright as sound makers — to make music together. We want it to be a ‘fire starter,’” he said. “Folks need to have their own living room ‘campfires’ and sing their songs together. This is important and old community behavior — historic and prehistoric. It’s who we are.”

What about karaoke? Isn’t that sort of, well, public music?

“Karaoke is the Viagra of community music making,” Stewart scoffed. “Music was always shared in the pubs — public houses — of every age. Karaoke is a modern economically viable response to a basic human need to keep participatory music in public life. I like karaoke, but we are not karaoke. We are an older model. The sound you hear is being made in the room. And everyone gets to be part of that sound.”

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Stewart doesn’t get paid much to run the mashes, either — again, doing it just for the love of the music.

For the meantime, Guitar Mash continues to evolve, but at its own pace.

“We just want to grow it carefully and beautifully,” Weller said.

Helping them keep the organization going is the Guitar Council, which includes, among others, Elyssa Ackerman and her husband Jason Ackerman, the founder of Fresh Direct, and Tony Sosnick, of Anthony men’s skin-care products, all of whom live in Soho.

The benefit jam at City Winery included an auction, featuring items like a Fender guitar signed by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a Boho Surf Wax oil-can guitar, two tickets to see Hot Tuna at the Beacon Theater and a silver pendant with a string played by Greg Allman.

It was all about strumming strings, but not everyone played guitar.



Among the event’s sponsors was D’Addario, and everyone got a schwag bag, including an electric tuner and a glass bottleneck for playing slide guitar, plus Anthony skin-care products, like hand cream to keep the guitar players’ fingers in good shape. For anyone who lacked a capo to bar their guitar strings for certain songs, there were “capo men” who went around during the event and handed them out.

The seven guest artists at the benefit each played a couple of songs with Stewart, then all returned to the stage to jam together for the finale.

“We could have had them do two hours each,” Weller said.