Made in Carcere |
Sewing Sounds in an Italian Womens Prison
Reflections by FSN Co-Director Jeremy Thal:
In August 2011, Sound Nation was invited to be a part of SoundRes music festival, based in the city of Lecce in the Salento region of southern Italy. In the first few days, Chris, Elena and I (Jeremy) formed part of the SoundRes backing band for a trio of talented singer-songwriters: Oh Petroleum, Mina Tindle, and Emily Hall, performing in an ancient roman amphitheater in the center of town. I must say this is the most epic venue in which I’ve yet tooted my French horn.
Our impetus for traveling down to the “heel of the boot” was to run a music composition/production/sound-art project with a group of women prisoners who worked in the jobs-training and employment program Made in Carcere or “Made in Prison.” In this program incarcerated women learn to make bags of all sizes made from recycled materials that might have been originally intended for blue jeans or Ikea furniture covers. The bags, each one a unique work of minimalist art, and are sold in fancy Milanese boutiques and even in Mario Batali’s Eataly restaurant in New York. The women, who are paid for their work, are from various parts of southern Europe: Albanian, Serbia, Romania, and Lecce itself.
On the evening of our final performance in the big courtyard, artists, journalists and high society folks from around Lecce sat on three sides of our central performance area, and a large group of women inmates sat on the fourth. Dozens more women looked on from their second- and third-story cell blocks. The performance was a melange of talents. The world-class percussionist David Cossin began with an open cymbal solo over ambient sounds created from our recordings of sewing machine motors. Then the women read their poetry in turns. The song’s they had composed were accompanied by a backing track we had created from sounds of clicking scissors, clicking machine pedals, and the sound of batons clanging against the bars. In addition to the musical element the performance included the choreography of Barbara Toma, who expertly created elegant movements to reinforce the musical and thematic ideas the women had conjured. We closed with a Romania-style dance tune that morphed into an actual Romanian tune, which in turn led to a unplanned performance by the pop star Haiducii, which brought many of the inmates out of their seats to dance, regardless of their origin. A fittingly absurd ending to the performance, yet somehow, thematically it all seemed to hold together.
In the end this project proved to me to be a testament to the resilience of human creativity at any age and in any condition. These women prisoners were just as excited to be composing, creating, dancing, and performing for their peers as the young men and women we worked with in New York. And perhaps because they were slightly older, or because of the poetics of the southern european winds, they brought a depth of artistry to their work. If nothing else, it reminded me of the absurdity of incarceration itself, the fact that even in the most humane of situations — and the Italian prison system is much more humane than the American one — incarceration is by nature dehumanizing.
At one point during rehearsal, I needed to leave the workshop space, and realizing it was locked, started banging on the bars to get the guards attention. One woman, a hardened Leccese with a tough aspect and warm eyes, nodded a bit as she felt that I had understood just a little bit about her life, across barriers of language and culture and place. She nodded: “Bruta senzazione, eh?”