The huge white chapel of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs is cocooned in 20ft mesh fences topped with rolls of razor wire. Built along with the rest of the establishment in 1874, it is Grade II listed and, on the inside, very handsome. Last night it hosted a unique occasion: a concert at which Rhiannon Giddens and her partner Francesco Turrisi, the star attractions, were preceded by six men currently held in the facility, which is nowadays a place for about 1,200 held on remand from local and county courts, awaiting the next stage of their judicial procedure.
The project was organised by Koestler Arts, a charity which works with prisoners and has its HQ in a house next to the Scrubs, and Serious, the producers of (among other things) the EFG London Jazz Festival, as part of which 60 tickets for the event went on sale to the public. About 40 friends of the charity were invited. The remainder of the audience, about another 40, were men currently on remand.
We gave up our phones, keys and other prohibited items before passing through the security entrance beside the prison’s famous twin-towered main gate. Ushered through a yard and into the chapel, we were directed to sit to the right of the aisle. Shortly before the performance began, the men on remand took their places on the other side; later we would be asked to wait while they filed out and were checked back into their wings.
The Ensemble, as the group of six inmates were called, were introduced to us by Fusion, one of the hosts of the jazz festival. He named them as Dave, Vince, Archie, Mark, Roy and Dan. Fusion and another Serious-mandated person, Shelly Davis, had worked with them over the preceding two weeks, spending four two-hour sessions working from scratch on original songs, poems and raps that could be performed either unaccompanied or with the simplest backing track.
These were not professional performers, although one had an outstandingly soulful voice, another was nearly as good, and a third would undoubtedly have a future as a rapper. The music moved between modern R&B, rap and gospel, the words — inspired by works of art from the annual Koestler Awards — inevitably evoking yearnings for lost freedom and identity. One poem had the refrain: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder / I wonder what our life would have been like if our bond was stronger.” The rap went: “A tree without roots won’t stand in this land / You need the roots to become a man.”
It was extraordinarily moving, as was their visible reaction to the sincere ovations they received after each item in their half-hour performance. This, if you were in any doubt, was what music can do, what it can offer, not just as a way of transcending immediate circumstances but as a signpost to real hope.
Only something special could follow that. Rhiannon Giddens, the one-time opera student from North Carolina who embraced old-time music, is engaged on a mission of rediscovering and recombining the folk forms of the African diaspora with relevant collateral idioms; this could hardly have been more appropriate to the occasion, given that most of the Ensemble and a high proportion of the prison’s inmates share their origins in that historical phenomenon. Playing her minstrel banjo — a 19th century design whose own roots are in West Africa — and fiddle, with Turrisi on accordion, cello banjo and a variety of frame drums and tambourines, and with Jason Sypher on double bass, she presented a short version of the concert programme from their current British tour, including the song “I’m On My Way” (from her latest album, there is no Other), which received a Grammy nomination this week.
In between whirling jigs from Ireland and southern Italy, she applied her exquisite precision and full-throated power to “At the Purchaser’s Option”, the song (from Freedom Highway, her 2017 album) provoked by a newspaper advertisement offering a young female slave, surplus to the vendor’s requirements, with a nine-month-old baby that could be included if the buyer so desired. “Ten Thousand Voices”, the declamatory lead-off track from the new album, featured Turrisi’s cello banjo, creating a desert-blues plangency answered by Giddens’s ardent fiddling.
I was praying that she’d do her version of “Wayfaring Stranger”, also from the new album: a traditional song of hope in the midst of travail. As Turrisi’s accordion solo pierced the deliberate plucking of the banjo and Giddens’s voice soared up into the high vaulted wooden ceiling of the chapel, it felt like as timeless and universal a piece of music as can ever have existed.
* Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi are at the Royal Festival Hall tonight (Friday 22 November) and then on tour around the UK. there is no Other is on the Nonesuch label.