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Blues Singer Rita Chiarelli Performs with Women Inmate Choir

by KDOC News — last modified Feb 16, 2017 03:38 PM
A short video filmed at Topeka Correctional Facility (TCF) featuring a female inmate choir will be shown Friday, Feb. 17, at the Folk Alliance International Conference being held in Kansas City.

Renowned folk and blues performer Rita Chiarelli spent three days at TCF training a group of singers for a concert for their fellow inmates on Thursday, Feb. 16. Chiarelli worked with a professional video crew to film the process, including rehearsals and various interactions with the inmate choir.

The group of 20 singers, calling themselves The Topeka Freedom Singers, performed “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Down by the Riverside” for approximately 200 inmates, staff and visitors The unique arrangements, crafted by the group under Chiarelli’s guidance, incorporated rap and Spanish.

Chiarelli and footage of her time at TCF will be featured at the Folk Alliance International Conference. Chiarelli said it was the idea of Aengus Finnan, the director of Folk Alliance, who came to her with the idea. But it was hardly her first time to work with inmate musicians.

Chiarelli was featured in a well-known 2010 documentary entitled Music from the Big House, in which she performed with four different musical groups comprised entirely of inmates from Louisiana’s Angola Prison.

“I never had a plan to go to Angola or to work with inmates,” Chiarelli said. “I was in Louisiana on a tour of the roots of the blues, and I called the prison to see if I could get a tour.

“Once I was there, I thought, ‘There are lots of videos of famous people doing concerts in prison, but I had the idea of a video with the inmates performing a concert. That’s never been done.’”

The finished product from Angola was Chiarelli performing with four different groups – an a capella group, a religious choir, a country band and an R&B group.

When she was approached to do a film for Folk Alliance, Chiarelli was determined her new project involve women. That led her to TCF. In spending three days with the inmate choir at the Topeka facility, she was able to develop relationships and provide guidance.

“It’s been fantastic as I see them blossoming and gaining confidence expressing themselves,” Chiarelli said at one of the rehearsals. “Some of them started out shy or uncertain and they wound up sharing their opinions, giving ideas and expressing themselves musically.”

“She taught us to use our voices in new ways and how to perform better, which will have a big impact on our choir going forward,” said Ellen, a member of the facility’s regular 32-member choir, The Daughters of Zion.

Chiarelli called music a “healer,” and called folk music “the people’s music.”

“Through music we express ourselves and tell our stories,” she said. “It’s really important to give inmates a chance to express themselves. It’s about humanity and compassion and forgiveness, delivered through music.”

Chiarelli said she appreciated the TCF staff for helping to make the project possible.

“You couldn’t ask for a more courteous, professional, helpful administration, said the native of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. “They have made this a great experience.”

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