Jump to main content

Rhiannon Giddens headlines our first ever EFG London Jazz Festival concert inside a prison

On the evening of the 21 November, the historic chapel of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs in West London was filled with an audience of inmates and the general public, who joined together to witness the first ever EFG London Jazz Festival show inside a prison.

The concert began with a phenomenal showcase of poetry, spoken word and singing from an ensemble of men from HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, which was the fruit of six musical workshop sessions, led by artists Sherry Davis (Move On Up alumna) and Alain ‘Fusion’ Clapham. This was followed by a unique performance from Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens who shared music from her new album, there is no Other alongside percussionist Francesco Turrisi, who also performed in the Royal Festival Hall the following evening.

After years of planning, Serious and national prison arts charity, Koestler Arts had just three weeks to work with the enthusiastic bunch of participants, who were hugely appreciative of the opportunity. Sessions were hosted in the astonishing Grade II listed chapel which provided a unique space to the rest of the prison, and enabled participants to become familiar with their performance space.

Wormwood Scrubs Prison can house up to 1200 men, and as a result, some participants had never met before. As with any musical initiative, key to a successful performance is the bond between the performers. With this in mind, our initial sessions with the prisoners focussed on getting to know one another, with participants ‘interviewing’ a peer, asking key questions on inspirations and aspirations. We also worked with the men to discuss ideas for ‘successful collaboration’; working as a team, supporting one another and complimenting each other’s various musical styles, strengths and weaknesses, and as a result, developing social and emotional skills.

Of course, music making was a key aspect of the course, and we were pleased that even on our first session, some participants confidently performed their own creative material, prepared in advance – spoken word, vocals, guitar, rapping. It was fantastic to see, at this early stage, the support shown for one another. With the concert date fast approaching, and new repertoire needing to be formed, we shared copies of images from the Koestler Art collection (artwork created by prisoners/ those in secure hospitals), to inspire the participants to work on another piece of creative writing or music in their own time, as a catalyst for the performance content.

Coming back together the following week, we split the group in two. One group worked with Fusion adding lyrics to beats on his laptop, whilst the other worked with Sherry, singing and performing spoken word with the grand piano accompaniment. Alongside the content of the showcase, which we continued to refine, participants were encouragedtothink about musical performances which inspired the group, and how this might be incorporated into their own stagecraft. We shared a clip of Rhiannon Giddens performing, to inspire the ensemble and familiarise them with the act they would be supporting on the night.

Before we knew it, performance day was upon us, and as we left the chapel following our final rehearsal, our stage crew arrived on site to transform the space for the evening. Both performances were met with an overwhelmingly positive response – tears and laughter led to a standing ovation from residents and visitors alike, highlighting the power of music to supersede social barriers.

The next morning the delivery team visited our participants once more, who reflected upon the previous night:

‘It was like a dream come true’, ‘we’ve still got goose bumps’, ‘I’m ecstatic that I took part in it, sad that it had to come to an end’.

‘I don’t think you understand how refreshing it is to have people like you in here. So thank you, thank you so much.’

The performances have since been broadcast on National Prison Radio, alongside an interview with a member of our partner organisation, Koestler Arts and conducted by an inmate from Brixton Prison. Whilst this service is exclusively available for those in prison, we’re delighted to share some snippets of the performance through the SoundCloud links below.

In addition, a project participant has kindly reviewed the show, and this can be read here, alongside our press content from the Guardian.

We would like to extend our thanks to our exceptional workshop leaders Sherry and Fusion, alongside HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs for their support for the project, and to the brilliant team at Koestler Arts for their continued partnership.

Share this article