7 Jun 2013

Pacific prisoners in NZ release debut album

5:13 pm on 7 June 2013

A prison choir, made up of inmates from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and the Cook Islands have recorded and released a CD of Pacific Island hymns and traditional songs for charity.

The charity CD release has however been overshadowed by a riot which broke out at the prison just a day after the release of the charity CD, in which 29 high security inmates damaged two cell blocks, and caused more than $1 million worth of damage.

None of the choir members was involved in the riot.

Leilani Momoisea reports:

Spring Hill prison's Vaka Fa'aola, or Pacific Focus Unit, was set up to help prisoners address their offending with cultural support. Less than 24 hours before the riot broke out at Spring Hill, the prison fale was filled with the unity of 44 prisoners from the Vaka Fa'aola, harmonising Samoan hymns.

This prisoner, who is not allowed to be identified, spoke about the pride he feels in having completed the recording of the CD.

"PRISONER: Celebration of something positive that I've done, is very rare in my life. (Laughs) And so, at the moment I think I'm a bit overwhelmed. I think it will sink in later. At the beginning it was very hard to get everybody to actually join up and have a go at it. Most of us have been in prison for a few years now, and it's never been done before, a choir."

He says the Vaka Fa'aola Unit was an ice-breaker for the men, who wouldn't normally associate with each other, but who were brought together through the desire to get to know more about their cultures.

PRISONER: The last time that I actually practise my culture or even do anything like this was when I was a child, in primary school. One thing led to another, you lose your way, then basically lose yourself and you start adopting all these other cultures, for example gang cultures and things. And you think that that's you, that's your culture and stuff like that. But you know, all that's been stripped, stripped away in here, in the Vaka.

Choirmaster Tagaloa Peter Su'a was brought in to help structure the choir to sound its best for the recording, and says it was a special day for the men, because they can know they have achieved something. He says at the beginning of the project, they were very sceptical and needed a lot of reassurance.

TAGALOA PETER SU'A: Just encouraging them repeatedly that they can do it. Just because they're here doesn't mean they're useless and they can't do anything, they can do anything they set their mind to. So it was weeks and weeks and weeks, literally, of encouraging, encouraging, encouraging, in between teaching them music.

The residential manager of the Pacific Focus Unit, Junior Ahyu, says there's been a big change in the attitudes of the men, since joining up with the unit.

JUNIOR AHYU: A lot of the guys that we have come from gang backgrounds, and so there's no loyalty to anyone else but themselves. But through the project they've learnt what it means to be part of a team, they've learnt how to deal with conflict, they've learnt the importance of being a family, really. Their interactions changed, their demeanours changed, they're a lot more happier.

The CD was recorded in the prison fale, with the choir producing its own artwork, and a member of the choir writing one of the songs on the album. The producer of the CD, Andy Jalfon from JX Media, says listening to the choir is quite an experience, and it's an experience you want to be able to bottle up.

ANDY JALFON: My responsibility wasn't just to record the songs, but to show the choir for who they were to the outside world, and I put great importance on making sure that the choir had their material, had their flavour, if you like, on the CD. Their spirit really came across in the CD and it was my privilege to be able to capture that.

The Corrections Department says no prisoners from the Vaka Fa'aola Unit were involved in the riot, and the CD release will go ahead as planned. All proceeds of the CD will go to the Cancer Society.