“Sons of this nation sing these songs of redemption”
I cried tears. Tears of empathy, pain, sorrow, love, consideration, and joy. It was the most intense thing I had seen on Jamaican music and prison life. The most riveting exposure of not just prison life but the successful rehabilitation programme using music in Jamaica’s penal system. Fernando Garcia’s Songs of Redemption was one of the films screened at Rototom Sunsplash’s 20th staging last summer. It revealed a ‘prison with swag’, specifically the Tower Street Correctional Centre which has been long known as General Penitentiary or ‘GP’ for short.
Reminiscent of recordings such as ‘General Penitentiary’ by Black Uhuru, and set in a space originally housing slaves who arrived at Kingston Harbour for sale to the highest bidder for plantation labour, Garcia exposes the intensity of prison life in what feels like real time, and yet in a sensitive manner. The film is dedicated to activist Carla Gullotta, and portrays the journey of inmates with musical inclination. It moves through the experiences of singers such as Serano Walker, Pity Less and Horseman as they collectively write, record, rehearse in spaces such as the ‘Bloom of Light Band Room’, and stage productions for invited guests and prison staff. The phenomenal transfer of frustration from the perils of life and its lessons into love and music produced sweet songs from the proverbial caged bird in a range of styles from dub poetry, to deejaying and singjaying. Serano, for example, had written some 200 songs since his incarceration, and magical self affirmation came for example as Pity Less changed his name to ‘Pity More’.
The heart-broken, dejected, and in some cases, abandoned inmates unveiled their dreams and life paths as they recorded redemption songs in the music studio established as part of the rehabilitation programme initiated by, among others, Officers Gillette Ramsay and Leroy Fairweather (now retired). Horseman for example, who attended Alpha School for Boys since age thirteen, dreamt of surpassing Don Drummond’s genius and contribution. It was also Horseman who recorded the ultimate dream embodied in the line – ‘haffi hol’ back a girl inna wi arms again’.
The farewell for one of the rehabilitation programme’s fathers – Superintendent Leroy Fairweather who was due to retire – brought emotions from heart to the tear ducts. You see, it was this same ‘fairer than the weather’ guardian with a heart who believed that if prisoners are occupied there’d be less time for them to get into trouble. He affirmed that ‘prison is not made for dogs, [one is] punished and sent there, its not a place you go to for punishment’. For the film’s main characters, it was as if they were losing a parent.
Some of the strongest affirmations came from Serano and Pity More. Serano explained that he began feeling like a person, finding peace, and happiness through music. He was particularly vocal after the performance organized with visitors such as I Wayne and Bongo Herman after which he said it felt as though music was helping him to create a soul.
The film is ultimately one which makes a strong statement about the philosophy behind punitive measures which have no redemptive imperative. It is all about redemption, and as Pity More said – ‘from you redeem yourself there is no condemnation’.
If the film has any shortcoming it would be the glaring omission of reference to Jah Cure who also participated in the rehabilitation programme and reaped such success that by the time of his release from prison he was a celebrity with net worth around JA$1 billion. When I mentioned this to the film producer he revealed that Jah Cure’s experience was not altogether positive.
With support from the Human Rights Programme of the European Union, the film has been getting rave reviews but don’t just take my word for it. Listen out for it coming to a theatre near you. Personally, I am looking forward to using it as a teaching resource.