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January 5, 2006

Prisoners sing for redemption

Kansas City Kansan (KS):

The world premiere of an innovative musical piece, performed by prison inmates, will combine modern rap with classical Gregorian chants. The "Rap of Redemption" will be performed at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Kansas City, Kan and is part of "How Can I Keep from Singing,". The powerful rap message of the "Rap of Redemption," deals with a prison inmate's pain and regret for the damage caused to others. The performance comes from the heart of the entertainers, who are themselves, inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility's East Unit - the minimum-security unit where the performing inmates are housed.

The lyrics of the "Rap of Redemption" were created by a maximum-security inmate, Essex Sims, at Lansing Correctional Facility, with the arrangements done by the East Hill Singer's conductor, Elvera Voth. The idea of mixing the chants of the third century with modern rap was Voth's. "I wish I'd never hurt you, hurt you," Sim's lyrical refrain proclaims. The Gregorian chants are the "Kyrie" and the "Angus Dei." The text of the "Kyrie" means "Lord have mercy," and the text of the "Agnus Dei" says "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us."

"We sing in order to give the men a valuable experience," she said. "We sing in English, Italian, Russian, traditional folk tunes, classical choral works and rap. It is all about education towards the larger world that most of these men have not had a chance to be part of." The East Hill Singers group is a program of Arts in Prison, Inc., a nonprofit organization founded by Voth, a Kansas native who is known nationwide and is in frequent demand as a guest conductor and workshop presenter. She is the subject of an Emmy winning documentary film recently produced by Sunflower Journeys of public television station, KTWU in Topeka.

The East Hill Singers will celebrate their 10th anniversary and will present four concerts outside the prison walls during 2006. A few of the inmates have had experience in singing but most have not. Rehearsals have been ongoing for months, and Voth has worked with them to improve their singing talents, teaching them to perform complex choral pieces and to improve their showmanship skills. Voth has kept track with some inmates who have gone on to successful lives after imprisonment, using the confidence they have acquired from this experience.

"It is a wonderful tool to help inmates," Voth said. "It benefits them while they are inside and when they get out. A lot have never worked as part of a community before. They learn that everything they do affects the whole community. If they miss rehearsals, the whole chorus will be impacted. They also learn that the instant gratification that they expect in life often has to be worked for long and hard. This is true of a lot of the people who are incarcerated. They don't realize that, to do well at anything can take a long time. It takes three to fourth months to learn one concert. It's a life lesson, and don't we all need it?"

Creating harmony with someone who sings well is better than only creating harmony with someone whose skin is the same color, Voth said. "That is a real revelation," she said. "Most of all, they learn that in order to like other people, they have to like themselves. Self-esteem is very low among that population. They learn to like themselves by singing in a concert and seeing the joy on the faces of their audience. After one concert, one inmate said he had no idea what it felt like to have a standing ovation. This is especially meaningful when you have been told all your life that you are worth absolutely nothing. With music, we are trying to make better neighbors of these folks, some of whom will eventually get out."

The group has given about 25 concerts outside the wall and has never had any problems with the inmates, who travel with security officers. "Come early because in the past, it gets full fast," said Sister Therese Bangert, one of the coordinators working with the sponsoring churches. "It is a real treat. This is the third time we have sponsored this. It is a gift to receive the beauty of the music that they bring."

Posted by acapnews at January 5, 2006 12:01 AM