back to prison, at last

although i had always vaguely intended to visit jamaica, my first trip here--in october of 2001--was an unexpected and unusual point of entry. one warm autumn afternoon, as i sat having some post-seminar beers with colleagues at the university of wisconsin, i got a phone-call from becca. she had called to tell me that her father, charlie, was interested in investigating a promising rehabilitation program in jamaica's prison system. apparently, music played a strong role in the program, and charlie was hoping to enlist my ethnomusicological expertise to evaluate what we would be seeing and, if it truly were promising, to help him figure out a way that harvard's intellectual and cultural capital could be used to support an innovative rehab effort. thus, the first place i went to in jamaica--directly after de-planing at norman manley international airport--was tower street prison, otherwise known as general penitentiary, or GP. considering how many american visitors to the island simply go straight to their all-inclusive hotels and rarely make it to kingston (never mind kingston's highest-security jail), i enjoyed the irony--and the "reality-check"--of my introduction to jamaica. rather than beaches, fake rastas, and reggae, i got cell-blocks, real rude boys, and, yes, reggae.

upon arriving at tower street, we were led to the chapel which lies in the center of the courtyard and which was serving as the activity center of the rehab program. there, charlie, i, and thaddeus miles (who, with his expertise in public safety and digital media, rounded out our trio) were treated to a concert put on entirely by inmates. a "house band"--specializing in roots reggae but able to cover paul simon and pull-off a gospel tune or a dancehall riddim--accompanied various singers and groups as they performed original songs and compelling cover-versions of well-known jamaican and american favorites. overall, the performances were competent, though perhaps unremarkable (except for their context). and some were outstanding. what i was most struck by, however, was the way that the performance truly seemed to be as much for the inmates themselves as it was for us. a packed house of fellow prisoners sang along, offered exhortations and encouragement, and applauded each act. i was impressed with the comport and composure of the inmates, many of whom truly seemed to have had a conversion experience of sorts (there was an uneasy mix of christian, rasta, and new-age philosophies in the rhetoric) and were committed to respecting their own lives and those of others. but to put a long story on hold, the rehabilitation effort we went to investigate more or less fell apart after a series of security problems, institutional infighting (leading to the departure of the prison commissioner), and your everyday jamaican bureaucratic blockades. a second visit to the prisons about a month later, involving a much larger team of students, scholars, and documentarians of various sorts generated a bunch of media and some ideas about how we might help (most of which you can peruse here), but little in the ways of concrete, on-the-ground change emerged from these well-meaning efforts. (the clean-up of tower street's facility for mentally-challenged and psychologically-unstable inmates is one glowing exception.)

despite various setbacks, charlie has been working consistently in the year and a half since our initial visit to get something happening in the prisons (and i somewhat less consistently). the talent, desire, need, and promise that we witnessed on that hot october morning in the tower street chapel, reaffirmed by periodic meetings with inspiring and eager inmates, has been enough to keep us going. last spring, as part of a berkman center conference that charlie organized, an initial draft, outlining the way harvard might facilitate and stimulate the department of correctional services's rehabilitation efforts, was drawn up by charlie, high-ranking members of jamaica's DCS, and others. although one might think that such cooperation would "seal the deal," so to speak, one cannot underestimate the way that power-struggles, big bureaucracy, and the conservative tendencies of the prison business--where slip-ups have serious consequences--can hinder the passage of such a proposal. last september, during my month-long stay in kingston, charlie and i revised what was then the fourth draft of the proposal and submitted drafts five and six. by january, when becca and i arrived in kingston with hopes of getting prisoners making beats, we still were getting what seemed like the runaround. the idea that they were still reviewing our proposal seemed absurd to me. in a new development, however, we had the good fortune to connect with alton grizzle, a director at cornerstone ministries--the christian organization that has been granted the privilege of providing outside services, such as educational and vocational offerings, to inmates. even with this valuable link, though, we have been stymied all spring by what seem like bureaucratic obstacles (budget wrangling, check cutting) while waiting on the completion of a computer lab in the prison where all kinds of digital media production and computer literacy programs could take place. just last month, charlie got word that the proposal we submitted last fall--focusing on music and drama, with a radio show as a media outlet and educational "feedback loop"--was finally approved. in an effort to get something going before becca and i have to return to the states, we arranged with grizzle to conduct a two-day series of digital music workshops last week at south camp prison, also located in kingston.

tower street was my first stop in jamaica, and south camp was my second. although the two prisons have much in common, they also have significant differences. as i mentioned above, tower street is the general penitentiary. as such, it contains all kinds of convicts, including a number of rather rough characters. it is terribly overcrowded, and violence erupts there regularly. if you have to go to prison in jamaica, GP is not the place you want to be. south camp, on the other hand, is for prisoners who have demonstrated some degree of good behavior. it is smaller, more open in construction, and prisoners appear to have greater freedom of movement. south camp was the flagship of the rehabilitation effort at its height, sending responsible inmates out on work-release and furloughs (programs that were discontinued after a couple less responsible inmates went AWOL). as the institution most poised to offer the kind of rehabilitation program we have proposed, south camp has been the site i have most often visited. i was there during each trip in the fall of 2001 and made three or four visits in august and september of 2002. as a result, i have developed relationships with several of the inmates who are more active in south camp's musical, dramatic, and rehabilitation-centered circles. this has made my repeated visits to south camp more fulfilling as well as more frustrating. each time i show my face there again, the guys see that i am committed to getting something off the ground and greet me warmly. (this last week, one guy called me "sir marsh," which i liked.) at the same time, i feel bad about coming around every few months or so with the same song and dance, unable to really deliver. i mean, sure, these guys are used to waiting. they have nothing but time at this point, and they are perhaps better acquainted with the powerlessness one feels as a subject of jamaican bureaucracy than most others. all the same, or maybe precisely because of their greater familiarity with the way of the system, these men deserve to have their limited and reasonable desires fulfilled. they deserve vocational training and arts programs. and they deserve such things now.

we went back to south camp last week to whet these patient prisoners' appetites, to demonstrate the promise of our program, and to gather support and interest. i think that we succeeded on all counts. (i hope, at least, that it was worth alton's trouble: he personally transported a half dozen computers from cornerstone ministries to the prison.) knowing how central a role music plays in the inmates' lives, i expected that our digital music workshop would be well-received. i was a little tentative about it, nevertheless, because the music creation software--especially with beginners--often leads to rather bloop-and-bleep-ish computer music which seems so distant from the live roots reggae that appears to be the favorite genre in the prisons. i am well aware of jamaicans' (and reggae's) predilection for cheesy synthesizers, however, and i trusted that these inmates' strong desire simply to take part in any activity that provides some source of diversion or enrichment would be enough to engage them.

i began on tuesday with a brief demo of the software, showing the guys how to manipulate parameters such as tempo, add and change instruments and sampled sounds, and structure several patterns into song form. then i let them loose on their computers, where they worked studiously for several hours. (we arrived around 10:30, overcame various technical difficulties by around noon, and made music until around 3--two hours later than we had planned to stay.) the group comprised inmates who not only were involved with music and drama in the prison but who, supposedly, had already completed an introductory computing course. for some, though, fruityloops served not only as an introduction to digital music but to mousing around--clicking, dragging, using file menus--and getting to know the computer more generally. as i walked around the room, offering tips and tricks, i found myself explaining these basic skills as much as more sophisticated music-related and software-specific concepts. (here is some audio of the workshop in progress.) most of the men caught on quickly, and before long, as a half-dozen riddims played simultaneously, the room was transformed into a big soundclash--the jamaican term for a "battle" between two soundsystems and an apt description of the country's soundscape more generally. all this music-making created quite a din (sometimes calling for a collective turn-down), but there was an undeniable energy to it. listen to the laughter elicited by the joyous noise in this second clip.

perhaps the most notable outcome of the week's workshops was the audible progress many of the participants made in just two days. i began thursday's workshop with a brief review of the basics followed by a more in-depth lesson on form. although some continued to master the basics of putting together a strong main pattern, a compelling loop, several began to structure their tracks more like songs, complete with intros, transitions, choruses, and breaks. compare, for example, the difference between the tracks that garfield put together on tuesday and then thursday. although the tuesday track is a loop with some potential, it gets a bit repetitive after a while, even with the quirky electro rhythms and dissonant bass. notice that the thursday riddim, however, not only has some form (including an intro and alternating sections), but the main loop itself gives one more to listen to: it's got a lil' bounce to it--a nice lilt--not to mention some futuristic sounds and a moving bassline. it's also a bit more of a "one-drop" riddim than the first, drawing on the easy pace and steadiness of roots reggae. it makes a fine setting for one of garfield's dub poems, as a matter of fact. garfield, who also goes by the name "step-out," is one of the many talented dub poets i have come across in the jamaican prison system. (dub poetry comes out of the 1970s dub reggae tradition and usually has a righteous, political focus. two of the more well-known practitioners are mutabaruka and linton kwesi johnson. when done with wit and emotion, dub poetry can be quite a powerful form of expression.) throughout both workshops, garfield seemed to be working with a poem in mind, and at the end of the session on thursday he recited a poem to the riddim he had built. i was struck by how well the riddim's form (significantly more developed than in the version above) matched the form of the poem. garfield's dub poetry performance shows great promise for a marriage of south camp's dub poetry and homegrown digital music production.

henzell, a keyboard player in the band, brought his knowledge of melody, harmony, and rhythm to the music-making software. he quickly figured out how to put together a convincing one-drop, complete with chords on the upbeats and melodic phrases. henzell spent most of his time figuring out how to use the playlist to structure his patterns and give his tracks song form. in his creation from tuesday's session, you can hear the various layers (bass, synth, kick drum, hi-hat) coming in and dropping out over the course of the song. on his thursday track, henzell demonstrates further his approach to form, deftly arranging a rootsy bassline, a two-chord piano vamp, some disco-one-drop drums, and a synth-brass melodic phrase.

two other participants, trevor and orlando, also showed notable growth over the course of the two-day workshop. trevor's first track is a cover of "stand by me" with percussion that sounds like a vintage drum-machine. his second track, "rain cloud," incorporates the lesson on form and thus contains more changes. one will notice, however, that with its descending electric piano line, lurching bass, and call/response counterpoint, the track retains the emphasis on melody suggested by trevor's version of ben e. king's oldie-but-goodie. orlando, the band's rhythm guitarist and one of the younger men of the group (which ranged from maybe 20 to about 50), came up with a nice hip-hop loop on our first day (captured live on tape here). his second riddim, produced on thursday, has more form to it. the riddim alternates between two different sections, separated by breaks that are nicely punctuated with a cymbal crash. the rhythms are more indebted to dancehall this time, while a strange sound-effect makes its presence well-known in the second section. (i should note that jamaican popular music, especially dancehall, embraces crazy sound effects, so this somewhat jarring sound is well grounded in tradition.)

the final clip i would like to share is perhaps a better way to listen to all of this sound. it gives the riddims some human context, as the creators introduce themselves and their tracks while their peers listen on. we finished both days in this manner, going around the room with each participant playing the track he had been working on. in addition to the diversity and promise of the musical offerings, i was impressed by the general air of encouragement in the room and by the touching mix of pride, humility, and satisfaction each person showed. i especially like garfield's admission that he is afraid people might laugh at his riddim and henzell's professed dedication to "(h)ardcore reggae" or "pop reggae," because "any other music comes second." notice also how many inmates express an interest to learn more and an excitement about this first day of exploration. i too felt this excitement, and i hope i will be able to facilitate more learning and more creation soon. meantime, the guys have at least one or two computers to work on--and nothing but time. i have a feeling we will hear some pretty amazing stuff coming out of south camp over the next year. charlie and ben walker are hard at work on a radio pilot that we hope will drum up interest and support for the kind of program we would like to attempt there. of the various arguments one could make for such rehabilitation efforts, the inmates' digital drumming could be the best of them all.