The Ballads of Cordoba Gaol: A Prison Workshop

The Independent on Sunday  London, 1996, 850 words
Versin en espaol | Version de langue franaise  

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Rafael's students are typical of Cordoba's prisoners. According to Francisco Velasco, the prison director, 80% are Gypsy men aged between 25 and 35 who are serving sentences for drug-related crime. Over three-quarters of the workshop members fit into this category. In the women's wing the story is similar; most prisoners are serving short sentences related to small-scale drug sales, often on behalf of their husbands. The incidence of Aids is high.

For Antonio Estevez, the prison psychologist and educationalist who had the original idea for the workshop, its success is rooted in the strength of the prison's Gitano culture.

MAKING A WORKSHOP

For Antonio Estevez, the prison psychologist and educationalist who had the original idea for the workshop, its success is rooted in the strength of the prison's Gypsy culture. "It works because it's based on the prisoners real world. You won't persuade a Gypsy man to do computer classes, or a woman to go to the gym, but you might just get her interested in dancing flamenco."

Last year, precisely, flamenco dance classes started in the women's wing and now there's a weekly mixed session of the two workshops at which husbands and wives in the separate wings get a chance to meet.

The workshop's and contests success are also rooted in the commitment of those who created it. Velasco raises its scanty local funding; Treas teaches it for just 40,000 ptas or 200 a month (less than he earns for a single performance); Estevez has often dipped into his own pocket to cover costs when the budget hasn't covered them. No coincidence, perhaps, that all three grew up in or close to Gypsy quarters of the Andalusian cities where flamenco has evolved over two centuries.

"Our way of seeing flamenco," says Velasco, "is as an expression of everything suffered by the Andalusian people, centuries of persecution. Those who've been pushed to the fringes of that society express it in a particularly free and spontaneous way. It is their music, just as blues has been for parts of American society."

The respect evinced by these remarks is mutual. Once, during a prison riot, inmates broke into the pharmacy, smashing the furniture they found in their path. Rafael's guitar, however, was not touched. Instead, it was secured out of harm's way in a metal locker. After several years of visits I was trusted to enter the living quarters briefly with a chosen photographer, a friends brother, Manuel Castro.

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