The Ballads of Cordoba Gaol: A Prison Workshop

The Independent on Sunday  London, 1996, 850 words
Versión en español | Version de langue française  

If I had to pick one privileged work experience from my whole time in Spain, it would be the series of visits I made to Cordoba prison's flamenco workshops and song contest, which were the brainchild of three extraordinary people: a guitarist, prison educator and prison director. From the workshop emerged Antonio 'Agujetas' (pictured right), one of the finest living performers of Jerez's oldest song styles. Thanks to Trini Machuca for the photos.

At the end of the article is an update.

Also see: Picassent, a Mixed Prison Wing

"My voice changed in prison," says Antonio Agujetas. "Before I sounded like a child. Now my voice has matured. The experience of being in prison has destroyed part of me, and that's in my singing now."

Agujetas, aged 34, is a member of Cordoba prison's weekly flamenco song workshop. Set up eight years ago as a way of encouraging Gypsy prisoners to take part in educational activities, it has now reached such a high standard that some students are being coached to sing professionally.

Set up eight years ago as an educational activity, it has now reached such a high standard that some students are being coached to sing professionally.


They are taught technique and lyrics, some from the prison flamenco repertoire dating back to the beginning of this century, by professional guitarist Rafael Treñas. This year, for the first time, he has taken four students out of the prison to perform in Andalusian peñas, the societies of flamenco lovers who are among its most discerning audiences.

"It was wonderful when people came up to me afterwards and talked to me as a singer," says Agujetas. "You can see the surprise on their faces when you start to sing, as if they weren't expecting anything good."

Agujetas, who is three-quarters of the way through a 22-year sentence for drug-related crimes, came to Cordoba prison to compete in the first biennial National Penitentiary Flamenco Song Contest six years ago. The two-dozen finalists, who come from all over Spain after being chosen on the basis of a demo-tape, earn remission on their sentences, and prize-winners can transfer to Cordoba to join the workshop if they want.

Away from the workshops the flamencos follow the prison's set daily routine: cleaning and kitchen duties, three meals, three headcounts. Because of a recent upsurge in drug-related crime, the prison is badly overcrowded. Around 600 men and women are squeezed into a dilapidated building originally built for half that number. At exercise time, the patios are hectic. Most of the flamencos share 3m x 2.5m cells, each fitted with two bunks and a urinal. The lucky ones also have small cassette-players.

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