The Observer January 2020 See full article
BBC2 January 2020, The Choir, Aylesbury Prison
Jailhouse blues – TV, Gareth Malone and singing as a route to redemption
When the nation’s choirmaster wanted to work with young offenders, a charity that creates choirs behind bars lent a hand.
It all started when I bumped into Gareth Malone at a party. We had met a few times before, and he was always the friendly figure you see on television. Part of the choirmaster’s appeal is his authenticity and, even though his hair is now greying, the phrase “boyish charm” clings to him.
But at that particular party, I was giving him a piece of my mind. “Gareth,” I said, “could you please drop this television project immediately.” The project in question meant we were competing with one another – with Gareth as Goliath and us as David, but with only one logical outcome, at least as far as the BBC was concerned.
Since 2014, my partner – choir director MJ Paranzino – and I have been creating choirs in prisons, a combination of prisoners and volunteers, the latter mostly from MJ’s choirs in the community. When the prisoners come out, they join the choirs or just keep in touch and are supported in their rehabilitation. The full-circle charity is called Liberty Choir. Our flagship prison is one of the largest and most challenging in Europe – HMP Wandsworth – but there are Liberty choirs in High Down and Downview, both in Surrey, and we are about to expand into two more prisons.
‘It gives me freedom within’: prison choirs are transforming lives
“Richie remembers the first time he sang properly: mouth wide open, lungs full of air. “It gave me freedom within,” says the 53-year-old. “I was suddenly able to see colour, life.” The sense of freedom felt novel. Not only because Richie felt trapped by the terrible crime he had committed, but also because he was incarcerated deep inside Wandsworth prison.
More precisely, Richie was locked within the jail’s Trinity wing, a triple-storeyed Victorian corridor in an overcrowded prison repeatedly criticised by inspectors and where drugs and violence were rife.
When word went round in April 2014 that volunteers from a community choir were about to enter the jail, Richie was curious. Along with 20 others he went along to Trinity’s chapel and sang. It was a decision which, he says, saved his life. “I would have ended it. I had nothing to live for. All the pain that had held me back drained away as my brain ran riot with harmonies,” says Richie, grinning at the memory.”
Ginny Dougary, co-founder of Liberty Choir – a charity that sings in prisons to support rehabilitation – told Yahoo UK:
“Singing in a choir is good for your health in every way.
“We see the benefits for mental health, and how the weekly coming together creates bonds and becomes an alternative family.
“This is doubly true for prisoners as when they re-emerge in society they often suffer from crippling isolation, shame and loneliness.”
Singing in prison
Best of Today
‘Unlocking hearts through song’
What role can music and singing have inside a prison? A programme running inside some prisons offers inmates the chance to sing in a choir and be part of a community choir after release. Today’s Mishal Husain visited Wandsworth Prison to meet the Liberty Choir.
A concert in aid of the Liberty Choir will take place at Kings Place in London on Sunday June the 23rd 2019.
Listen to Today excerpt from Radio Wanno
Image: Mishal Husain and Liberty Choir director MJ Paranzino, Wandsworth Prison; credit: BBC
Liberty Choirs are lifting spirits
Large numbers of people in the community enjoy singing and find that it gives great benefits. When members of a community choir joined prisoners in HMP Wandsworth to sing regularly the results have been positive and have led to expansion into increasing numbers of prisons as Ginny Dougary, co-founder of the Liberty Choir , explains.
Sing you heart out: the benefits of joining a choir
Some people are born singers, but for those who aren’t it is easy to dread the idea of participating in a choir. However , something of a revolution is taking place at the moment.
David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’
Charlie Gilmour went to prison for climbing the Cenotaph in 2011. Three years later, he returned to prison to hear a concert that changed his life – and his family’s
David Gilmour is the singer and guitarist in Pink Floyd, now a solo artist. He is married to the novelist Polly Samson and adopted her son, Charlie, by the poet and artist Heathcote Williams, who had walked out when their son was five months old, saying he couldn’t cope with having a baby. David has four children from his first marriage and three younger children, in addition to Charlie, with Polly.
Charlie, a journalist and campaigner for the Howard League for Penal Reform, was given a 16-month prison sentence in 2011 after swinging from a union flag at the Cenotaph, in London, while on a student demonstration, having admitted to violent disorder. Part of his defence was that he was off his head on drugs, dealing with being rejected by his biological father. At 21, and still at Cambridge University, he was one of the youngest inmates.
In 2014, Charlie returned to prison – this time as a member of the audience at Wandsworth for a concert by the charity I co-founded, Liberty Choir, whose members include serving prisoners. He was so moved that he persuaded his parents to come to the prison to experience the choir themselves.
In 2015 the Liberty Choir performed on the title single of David Gilmour’s No 1 solo album, Rattle That Lock. David Gilmour is now the patron of the Liberty Choir. Father and son describe this outcome as healing and transformative for the whole family – a way of walking out of the dark into the light.
We are grateful to all our founding supporters and friends but David Gilmour and Polly Samson have gone above and beyond to help Liberty Choir – not only financially but with their time and continuous outspoken public support of the programme. It was Polly’s idea, when David wanted a choir for the single, and title track, of his new solo album – Rattle That Lock – to have the Liberty Choir, with our ex-offender members, be that choir. At every opportunity,since its release, both David and Polly have talked about the initiative, on numerous radio programmes and print interviews, both in the UK and internationally. Without them, this page would not be nearly so full.
Video of ‘Rattle That Lock’ by David Gilmour featuring the Liberty Choir
David Gilmour talks about recording ‘Rattle That Lock’ with Liberty Choir
He persuaded Gilmour and mum Polly Samson, the Pink Floyd guitarist’s wife of more than 20 years, that it would be truly worthwhile to support the singers.
One thing led to another and now the Liberty Choir appear on the life-affirming title track of Gilmour’s fourth solo album and both he and Polly have become patrons.
You hear the voices rising as one as the choir belts out the chorus: “Rattle That Lock, lose those chains!” “
..singing in a choir gives you that sense of elation, and learning about harmony is a powerful and potentially transformational tool. What I really like about this programme is that the prisoners are exposed to a different community of people within the prison and when they come out – and this dual aspect of it is the brilliant thing – they are encourage to join MJ’s choirs in the external community. The Liberty Choir doesn’t just give prisoners a voice; it offers them a community, too.“
During the break we had a meeting with the Liberty Choir members – both the volunteers and the ex-offenders – to talk about the recording. I was very struck by the enthusiasm of the ex-prisoners. The choir was obviously something that was very good for them, helping to bring them into contact with different people and a different sort of life, in a positive way.“