Music in a Cold Space: Son Jarocho at Corcoran State Prison


ACTA - Posted on 24 March 2015

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Quetzal Flores (left) and Cesar Castro teaching a son jarocho workshop at Corcoran State Prison.

To read this article in Spanish, click here. // Para la versi ón en español de este artículo, haga click aquí.

When I shared the news that I was invited to teach music at a California state prison, it generated different reactions among my acquaintances.  Some were worried for me and expressed it through nervous laughter, however for the most part, I received positive support for my new adventure of becoming a jarana and son jarocho teacher in a prison.  I decided not to do any internet research of what that meant, but I did pay attention to the testimonies of the people who I know had worked in correctional facilities.

Day One: 4:30 AM.  Los Angeles, CA.  Coffee, breakfast, lunch, snacks, jaranas, a full tank; everything ready to drive the three hours on the freeway to Corcoran State Prison. Intrigue, emotion and numerous plans.

First security check point at the entrance of the complex: hand over driver's license and state the reason for your visit.

Second security check point at the office at the entrance of the prison: exchange your California driver's license for a correctional ID; inspection of the objects/instruments, check the style and color of clothing; entry time.

Third security check point once you pass the automatic gate and the tunnel with magnetic doors: make sure that the photo in the correctional ID matches the person carrying it.

Fourth security check point after entering Yard B and crossing the automatic door guarded by an armed tower guard: write down the time of arrival, the place to intend to visit and sign; you are also subjected to a second review of the style and color of clothing, receive an emergency pager.

Finally, we arrived at the gym, which we transformed into a space for traditional arts for the following six hours; a cold and clean art hall with guards and a sharpshooter on a catwalk, marked with clear signs that say, "No warning shots will be fired," that in some way keeps you calm but at the same time makes you constantly anxious.  After we arrive at the gym, the participants are brought in.  They are released from other duties to attend the new program, which means that some are able to make it, others not.  Finally, the thick and heavy metal door opens; a cold wind leaves the gym and a group of men dressed in blue come in.

Three different traditional arts workshops are offered at the same time in the same place.  The inmates approach us with enthusiasm and with plenty of respectful questions; some are still deciding which workshop to join, others have made up their minds.  Some greet us with a handshake, while others just acknowledge us with eye contact.  While greeting us they share questions and comments: "Are these ukuleles?; How do you tune them?; Are you going to teach us how to play?; Why eight strings?; I've never played; I play the guitar, can I bring it?:  We even welcome a smiling, young student whom I will never forget because he looked just like the high school kids that I teach in Los Angeles.  He asks: "Have you ever been in prison before?"  When I answer with a hesitant, "No," he responds with, "Well, then welcome to prison!"  We all laugh and I thank him and try to imagine what brought him to prison at such a young age; he should be in school...  Regardless, he seemed to be well adapted to the regime, so I limit myself to responding to his questions without prejudice.  During this personal welcome, that same student also notices that the espiga (plectrum) that I use to play my requinto (which looks like the arm of the frame of glasses or the handle of a plastic spoon) resembles the knives that inmates manufacture in prison.  We laugh again, but this time, my laughter is reserved and thoughtful.

During our first half day at the prison we thought that we had learned how to get along with the administrative staff, the guards, and the inmates.  However, in the course of several weeks, we realized that many attitudes changed and we really hadn't learned anything; this was just the first encounter.

Participants in the son jarocho workshops taught by Quetzal Flores and Cesar Castro at Corcoran State Prison from September-December 2014. <i />Photos: Eric Coleman

Every week, Quetzal and I introduced ourselves as traditional artists and music teachers, we played our instruments and sang some verses.  We formed a circle with the chairs and all participants had their jaranas and were ready for the instruction.  I began playing with my right hand, which is the hand that plays rhythm, after a few minutes I stopped to explain how you use your left hand.  DO cord, followed by FA, until we get to SOL7.  As an exercise, we usually began by playing a son.  Minutes later they all are capable of doing it despite their different abilities.  I asked myself how this is possible, but the answer is right in front of me: they are used to following clear instructions and are subject to forced routines.  I can only compare this with university students of a private institution, where they have the same performance and results, although in very different circumstances.

Soon enough we began to hear music in this cold space.  I am even convinced that the sonority attracted flies and smiles; but most importantly, I am sure that it changed our surrounding and the students' interior.  They expressed it: they felt well, they felt calm; they were liberated from negative thoughts and from their current realities.  A cascade of comments and thoughts were shared between exercises, sones, and songs and with each of them we learned more.  This kind of music is a way of coming together through dialogue and that is when we noticed that this was our real weekly work.

They say that music is a universal language; however we have to recognize that not everyone agrees and that there are tensions among some groups.  The same happens inside the prison.  We began working more intensively at the personal level given that our balanced group from the first class had disappeared.  The differences in the retention, concentration, focus, and physical state of the hands became more and more evident as we were faced with obstacles to overcome, elude, or learn to deal with.  The more experienced guitar players began to show signs of restlessness because not everyone in the group progressed at the same pace. We had to explain that the more advanced players were important to the development of the group, that we needed their abilities to help the others, and as an incentive we taught them more advanced music that is played in son jarocho.  Everything was evolving in the right direction and continued to delight our ears.  In one workshop moment, Quetzal brought to class the lyrics and written chords of a Bob Marley song that uses that same chords we had been practicing with sones such as El Colás o El Chuchumbé; the realization of this common musical foundation for two very different styles brought a new perspective to our evolving students.

Unfortunately, we didn't have the same students all the time; attendance fluctuated a lot, especially in the beginning of the program.  Therefore, some of the students didn't progress in their practice of the sones and songs.  One morning, after we had completed the warm-up exercises and we were about to begin playing our first son, we heard reverberating screams inside the gym.  I didn't understand what was happening, but I saw that all of the students in all the three traditional arts classes had left their chairs and began sitting on the floor by orders from the tower guard and guard.  We were instructed to separate from the group of inmates and to locate ourselves in an area where we wouldn't obstruct the guards and we were outside of the shooting range.  This incident broke the harmony that we have created.  At this point, I wasn't sure if we were going to resume our class or not and I wasn't clear what had happened outside in the main yard that originated all of this.  All our music students still had their instruments in their hands.  There was complete silence, except the sound of the ventilator on the roof; we looked at each other and tried to communicate with our eyes.  What just happened?  Nobody knew, but it seemed that the only people surprised by this sudden disruption were the arts teachers, Omar, Michael, Quetzal, and myself, who were all new to the prison; everyone else could imagine the different possible scenarios.  Right at that moment, something unexpected happened: one student began playing the chords we just taught and another student turned around and helped him. I recall that moment as the first major accomplishment of the music class; the jarana class and the fandango spirit consist precisely of helping each other become better.  Soon enough others began stroking the strings of their instruments and that abrupt interruption was buried under the music played by the students.  I don't recall how much time we were playing on the floor, but I do remember that it was slow and harmonious.  We were listening.

Son jarocho workshop participants.

In one of the classes, the guitar players came to class really excited and motivated.  We noticed this and reminded ourselves that every class is different and that as teachers we need to be sensible and responsive to the students.  At this point, we had gained their trust, therefore they were not only more open in the way they played but even with the jokes that they made amongst the group.  That day, it was Quetzal’s turn to support and surprise the group.  Noticing a group  of students playing, Quetzal asked, "Let me hear, what are you playing?"  One of the students immediately reacted like a scolded child and responded, "Nothing."  But neither Quetzal nor I gave up.  We tried to replicate their tune with our instruments.  In a matter of seconds, we had followed along with their song, much to their surprise.  Then their reaction was, Look at that, we were just playing and they were able to play the same tune and it even sounded like a real song!  Quetzal didn't let this opportunity go by and he transformed that idea into an original song.  That was the beginning of a composition class, where we used the same melody they had created and built upon it with harmonized chords and a bridge; it only needed some verses.  There were Latinos, Whites, and African Americans playing the cajón, guitars, and jaranas, clapping and singing.  That moment was genuine and unexpected, a shot that passed through all of the souls in the gym, from the intern who was responsible for cleaning the gym to the tower guard dozing off in his cage.

We traveled many miles both at moonrise and sunset.  We crossed mountains and fog.  We renounced our civil liberties every Monday in order to liberate a few inmates for a little while.  We went far; we took them way beyond the gray high fences.  I will never forget the way and tone in which they asked us how our week was, and more importantly, the intensity with the way that they received our answers, like they were making it their own answer, at least for a moment, I think it was their answer.  The way they said goodbye and wished us a safe return home.  How grateful they were for our efforts and because they knew we were doing it for them, not for us.  They are not used to this type of treatment; they don't expect it and we were able to give them back part of their humanity wrapped in art.  I hope we have contributed something positive in the prison culture, and I wish that they will be able continue practicing what we taught them because I am convinced that the correctional institutions are full of wise and talented people.

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