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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - European jazz band blowing prison blues away

European jazz band blowing prison blues away

Over the past four years, prisoners in Cambodia have been treated to an age-old

tradition common throughout Europe and the United States - jazz and blues


While the prisoners may not be familiar with the music,

what's important is the break in routine. For Katharina Hoffmann, co-founder of

the Swiss-based NGO Repris de Justesse responsible for the concerts, it is

enough that the prisoners have something enjoyable to look forward to in their

day-to-day existence. The musicians' motivation for the concerts is simply "to

bring some joy and relaxation, a good hour of music inside".

History is

littered with examples of musicians venturing inside prison gates to share their

passion for music. Johnny Cash gave two concerts in prisons in the 1970s.

Inmates at Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville enjoyed his understated

country tunes, as did those at San Quentin prison. Merle Haggard was inspired by

Cash while doing time, and in 2001 released the album 'Prison'.

Sometimes prisoners themselves have passed time by composing and

performing, and the tradition is not limited to jazz and blues. In 1943 Margaret

Dryburgh, a Presbyterian missionary held captive in a Japanese prison camp,

reconstructed entire works by Beethoven, Debussy and Dvorak from memory. She had

no musical instruments, but fellow prisoner and professional musician Norah

Chambers was able to help. On scraps of illicitly acquired paper, they managed

to arrange the works for a choir consisting of 30 other detainees. Only half of

the inmates survived the war, but in 1983 one of the members of the original

ensemble organized a recording of Dryburgh's arrangements, performed by a

Californian women's choir.

French composer Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet

for the End of Time" was composed while he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp

in 1940. The only instrumentalists available to him were a clarinetist, a

violinist, a cellist and himself, a pianist. Conditions forced him to compose

for the unusual ensemble, very rare in the chamber music repertoire. It was

first performed on January 15, 1941, to an appreciative audience of 5,000


Music is seen as a positive outlet for those serving time and

today many prisons have musical programs to help with rehabilitation.

The Repris de Justesse band began performing in prisons in 1989.

Hoffmann's husband Rene, the lead singer of the band, had friends in prison and

wanted to bring music into their world instead of performing on a stage outside,

Hoffmann told the Post. They began performing in Belgium, then moved on to

Switzerland and Albania. Cambodia is the latest addition to their touring


Hoffmann's brother-in-law lives in Cambodia, and it was his

suggestion that brought them to the kingdom. "He knew that we made music in

prisons also in Switzerland, and he said, 'Why not in Cambodia? Come and look',"

said Hoffmann. She and her husband visited Cambodia in 2000 to see if the idea

was plausible, where they met with local human rights NGO Licadho.


had a day with Licadho to go into one prison, and after that we said, yes, it's

possible, we'll come," said Hoffman.

Their first concert was in 2002,

but the commune elections made it difficult to gain access to the prisons.

They returned in January 2004 for a two-week tour, taking in prisons in

Kandal, Kampong Speu, Takeo, Kampong Cham and Pursat provinces.


believes most inmates had never heard anything like their jazz and blues. While

she can't be certain they enjoyed the novel musical forms, she thinks the

experience of a concert was welcome relief.

"It's difficult to say [how

much they liked the music], I suppose they are really happy to have us perform

for them, they know we traveled many kilometers to come."

Repris de

Justesse will continue to work with Licadho, and hope to return to Cambodia's

prisons next year.



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