Redemption Songs – the sound of freedom

For many people in Zimbabwe, prison is all about getting locked up behind steel bars under the watchful eyes of marauding wardens. This spine-chilling, stereotypical perception of life in prison has been debunked by the Zimbabwe Prison Services department (ZPS), who since 2012 have been allowing some prisoners to sing on the streets of Harare. Notwithstanding the covert security measures put in place to foil any attempts at escaping, the serving prisoners are seemingly granted a taste of freedom as they express themselves through song and dance. Suffice it to say the incarcerated singers need no encouragement as they make the most of their moments of freedom, sporadic and temporary as they may be. Gyrating under the African sun, they pour out their hearts paying homage to the old adage that only the prisoner knows the real meaning of freedom.

Now in its third year running, the music for prisoner rehabilitation initiative has proven a major hit with the public in Harare. Attitudes towards prisoners have changed immensely with so many well wishers stepping forward to partner with ZPS in providing support for the music makers behind bars. This has provided some of the prison choirs access to record their music onto CDs and DVDs that are sold during their street performances. Revenue raised from the sales is saved and later shared among the singers, either for their own welfare in prison or for their dependants back home. Some of the men doing time were once breadwinners and so for them singing is a way of continuing to support their families out there. Little wonder the singers take their work seriously.

Divine Touch Choir based in Harare Central Prison, just a stone throw from the city centre are one of the leading outfits with recorded material sponsored by well wishers and facilitated by ZPS. allowing cameras and other recording equipment into prisons is a major departure from Zimbabwe’s traditional approach to correctional services. Yet breaking from convention has seen prisoners emerging as the major beneficiaries by any measure. It goes without saying that some of the inmates only discovered their own talent in music after conviction and subsequent incarceration ended their criminal endeavours. As bluntly sung by Harare Central Prison Gospel Choir in the following video, the prisoners themselves admit that they were not such jolly good fellows. Ndaive Mbavha is Shona for ‘I was a thief.’

There are a number of groups formed to perform as choirs in Zimbabwean prisons. Some just entertain fellow inmates and wardens too, but others have been allowed to take their acts outside their prison walls. Tehillah Worshippers – Chikurubi Farm Prison Gospel Choir is one such group formed at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison located North-East of Harare.

Tehillah Worshippers belting out their a capella tunes as onlookers watch spellbound

Tehillah Worshippers belting out their a capella tunes as onlookers watch spellbound

The a capella outfit boasts of 15 to 20 members whose stint under the group depends with their respective prison sentences. Their music is mostly hinged upon their Christian beliefs in spiritual transformation, penitence and restoration when finally released from prison. Their sentimental melodies accentuated by their snow-white prison garb, lends them an angelic appeal that has endeared them with their growing legion of fans. Their polished act is hard to ignore. Even the busiest of pedestrians at least take a few minutes to check them out. Even I could not escape their magnetism and with permission from their guards in plain clothes managed to take a few establishing shots using my smartphone. I had to buy myself a drink later on, for resisting the burning temptation to take a few selfies for good measure.

Crowds easily form around serving prisoners singing in broad daylight

Crowds easily form around serving prisoners singing in broad daylight with no armed guards in plain sight!

Beginning with a few onlookers, crowds easily form around the melody makers from places long dissociated with pomp and fanfare. As still photos may not do enough justice for these ‘reformed’ men, take a snip view of them in action.

Before I left I bought myself a copy of their latest CD titled Vimba naJesu (Trust in Jesus) which was recorded at True Vine Studios in 2014. It carries nine tracks all of them done in a capella. They are now mulling shooting videos for some of their songs. Talk of unchained melodies – no pun intended!

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Our Correspondent
Cult Zimbabwe correspondent
Richard - Harare

My Zimbabwean winter birth in July 1981 must have laid the foundation for my cool temperament. I grew up in Harare and have since travelled the length and breadth of our teapot shaped country. At some point I tried thinking outside the box ...

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Continent: Africa
Capital: Harare
Population: 11,651,900
Area: 390,580 km2
Currency: Dollar
Languages: English

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