Philippine prison orchestra in 1st public concert

06/17/10 - MANILA, Philippines — The sound of Broadway medleys and love songs echoed inside the walls of the Philippines' maximum security penitentiary Tuesday when convicts, many of them serving life sentences for murder and other major crimes, gave their first public concert.

The 100-member Bureau of Corrections Grand Orchestra and Chorale at the New Bilibid Prison in Manila played Broadway pieces and love songs in the local Tagalog language to prison officials, relatives and media. A soloist, backed by the orchestra, also sang "New York, New York" as women inmates in top hats and coattails danced.

Prison officials and organizers said the project was part of efforts to showcase musical talents of some of the inmates and help prepare them for release. The performance was reminiscent of an Internet smash hit several years ago, when the central Cebu provincial prison warden organized hundreds of inmates to dance to Michael Jackson's songs. Their performances have received millions of hits on YouTube.

Saxophone player Rey Matias, a 45-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for murder, said his days are now filled with band practice, a welcome change from the boredom of loitering around the maximum security compound, staring into space and pondering his fate.

"When the band was put up, it put color and perked up our days," he said. "Even a prisoner can be proud of something."

"I'm so happy because my heart is in music and even while detained, I can do what I want," said Manuel Esguerra Jr., 58. The former military band member and murder convict is serving a life term.

Bureau of Corrections Director Oscar Calderon said through music they hope to reform the inmates and "remove their criminal minds, soften up their feelings."

Security in the prison was low-key during the performance, although police sharpshooters stood guard. Relatives and reporters could mingle and talk freely with the inmates inside the hall. After the performance, the inmates, clutching their instruments, were led back to their cells.

The group does not have all the elements of a modern orchestra, such as a full string section, but they have an impressive complement of brass and woodwind instruments. Warren Zingapan, an inmate who organized the performance, said it's a good start.

He said that because music transcends barriers, the symphony and chorale members feel that even while they are physically detained, their music can go beyond the walls of the facility.

"Just by that alone ... it is as if they are free," said Zingapan, who topped the civil engineer board exam in 1996 but later was sentenced to life in prison for murder over a killing at a fraternity rumble. (hostednews)

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