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Jailhouse rock

Reggae's most transcendent and iconic figure, Bob Marley, once said - “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. This rings true for many prisoners in South Africa who have been moved by the Poetso Music Project.

Poetso Music Project is a prison outreach programme founded by Trevor Smith in 2005, focusing on empowerment and upliftment through music. The project began with a call for a theory teacher to work at Leeuwkop Medium C correctional facility for men on a voluntary basis, training students in theory. Smith’s involvement at the prison led to his observation of the rehabilitative and restorative effects of music on people in prison.

“There is no right or wrong in music, so there is no judgment. There is only encouragement, and from there an increase in self-esteem and confidence to pursue not only music, but perhaps other areas in one’s life,” he says.

Smith, a trained musician, went on to register Poetso Music Project as a non-profit organisation in 2013. Apart from continuing to train prisoners in music theory, Poetso assisted some prisoners in starting a band at Westville Prison in Durban.

Enter the National Arts Council (NAC), which, in 2015, approved funding for the project. According to Smith, funding from the NAC has assisted in all spheres of the project’s activities, from the educational element of formal music theory examinations and music production training to songwriting workshops and even a recording of the band’s performance for the Department of Correctional Services and family members of the prisoners.

Funding also enabled Poetso to purchase music composition software, which was loaded on to the prison’s computers for the band to continue creating music once the project had seen its completion. In addition, travel expenses, tutor fees and other practical resources required to see the project through were covered as a result of the NAC’s funding.

Poetso’s prison recording project is in the final mixing and mastering phase, after which the recorded songs will be packaged and distributed to the participants and their families. A backing CD will also be produced so that the band can continue to perform their songs at events the Department of Correctional Services holds throughout the year.

Commenting on the highlights from the recording project, Smith says: “While we were [at Westville], we experienced the wardens opening each morning with a prayer and a song. We asked the female wardens if they would like to sing backing vocals on a couple of the gospel tracks, to which they agreed. It was wonderful to see the collaboration between the juveniles and those who oversee them … a breaking down of barriers to create something special together.”

Another highlight, according to Smith, was witnessing the transformation of one of the juveniles, who had initially wanted to drop out on the second day. By the end, he had become the top participant in the group, scoring the highest marks in his theory examination, writing lyrics for the first time, and featuring first in the hip-hop track.

To illustrate the Poetso Music Project’s impact on prisoners’ lives and its ethos of being a lasting, positive influence on prisoners, Smith reflects on another highlight of the project: “One of our old participants who had been released from prison a few years ago also joined us in the project at Westville, and from his own experiences and success was able to really offer a testimonial on the positive impact music can have on those physically and mentally imprisoned.”

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