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Blog: "Music In Detention?" people say. "Brilliant idea: where did it come from?"

Blog: "Music In Detention?" people say. "Brilliant idea: where did it come from?"

12th January 2017

by Sue Lukes, Chair of Trustees

“Music In Detention?” people say. “Brilliant idea: where did it come from?” and the story is simple enough.  MID started with a feasibility study and a grant from the Helen Tetlow Memorial Fund.  Helen was a musician and teacher who cared about migrants, and the Fund (I was on the board) wanted a project that would reach the most disadvantaged migrants in Britain. 

But just before we brainstormed what that could be, I went to the Royal Academy of Music, to give a short talk to introduce a concert given by Katia Chornik, who had written her masters about music in concentration camps and Chilean prisons. Like Katia I had connections to both.  Maybe my grandparents heard the music of Terezin before they were deported to Auschwitz and their deaths.  My daughters’ father certainly brought music with him into exile after 4 years in Pinochet’s prisons.  In our house we had maybe six versions of Candombe para Jose, the song that prisoners sang to cheer each other up, allowed because it seemed to have little political content but valued because it spoke of the importance of friendship between people in difficult times and of how it is to be forgotten. 

Candombe para Jose

Katia has gone on to set up Cantos Cautivos, an astonishing archive of the music made by Chilean political prisoners.  I find it hard to listen to some without crying.  The songs represent so much suffering, but also determination, courage, humour, playfulness, creativity.  BBC Radio 4 covered it on the Today programme on December 10th 2016 with Katia and Sarah de Witt, a former prisoner talking about the importance of music in her 20 months as a political prisoner. 

So when we had that discussion about what sort of project we might try to start, we remembered Helen and her love of music, we thought about detainees and how it must be to live with no idea about when you will be released, or what will happen to you, I told them about Katia’s concert.  It was a revelatory moment.  We knew we wanted to get music into detention centres.  And, after a few ups and downs, that is what we have been doing ever since.