When Amy Garapic looked from the stage to the inmates she was about to perform for at the inaugural Rhythm on Rikers program last year, she wondered if a traditional call-and-response was really the best number to kick off the concert.
“I don’t know that I assessed my audience very accurately before that,” she says with a light laugh. “We started playing and did a little bit of drumming, and I did my vocal part and there was not one single responder. I think there might have been 300 guys in the room.”
For the concert, which will take place again Friday as part of Make Music New York, Garapic worked with 10 inmates for 10 weeks and taught them hand-drumming.
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None of the inmates from the men’s prison who perform as part of Rhythm on Rikers are incarcerated for more than 10 months, and they are all vetted carefully to make sure they have no history of violence while inside. But the same isn’t necessarily true of the men in the audience. So last year, when they refused to respond initially, tensions were running high.
“It’s hard for me to remember the first time I got onstage, but you don’t forget the nerves, and for these guys it’s amidst a room of their peers who weren’t responding in any way, which is tough [even]for a veteran. It’s not a room of 5-year-olds who don’t care,” she says. “It was probably one of the most terrifying performances that I’ve experienced in a long time.”
But after a few songs, the prisoners in the audience got into it and the men onstage with Garapic started to really let loose.
“In addition to getting the audience involved, I got to experience the transition of seeing 10 guys — nine of whom had no musical training — get into a groove and exchange the energy with the audience and do things that I didn’t know that they were capable of, doing things that they had never even tried in rehearsal.”
Women do the jailhouse rock too
After last year’s success with the men’s prison, Make Music New York expanded the program to include the women’s prison, which is not divided into units according to the severity of the crime, the way the men’s prison is, which means there is a broader mix of inmates participating. But Garapic says the conversation during the weekly six-hour lesson and rehearsal hardly ever drifts into “What are you in for?” territory.
“We never talk about any of that,” says Garapic. “If any personal things come up it’s ‘Oh, my daughter, she would love this, I’m going to teach her drums when I go home.’ We don’t really talk about what got them there.”