We are a long way from Carnegie Hall.
We are in the Clarenville Correctional Centre, a women’s jail in eastern Newfoundland. The inmates have gathered. Candles have been lit, and songs are about to be sung.
Not just any songs. They are lullabies.
This story is about a project that saw lullabies written and performed, and how they had a powerful impact on the inmates — and the people guarding them.
And there is a connection with Carnegie Hall, the famed concert hall in New York City.
Though founded in a New York City laundromat, the International Lullaby Project has spread worldwide via Carnegie Hall to bring hope and connections in places like refugee camps, neonatal units, drop-in centres and prisons.
Thanks to a husband-and-wife team, the Lullaby Project came last year to the the Clarenville Correctional Centre — the first time a Canadian prison has hosted such a program.
Jan Buley is a professor of education at Memorial University in St. John’s. Her co-organizer is her husband, David Buley, a professor music at MUN.
On this, the day of their concert, the range at the prison is buzzing with music, nervous laughter and, surprisingly, joy.
We all have a story we can tell. We all have a memory we can keep. – Participant in the Clarenville Correctional Centre’s Lullaby Project
Juxtapose that with the stark fact that two women died here only months ago. The reports on their deaths still haven’t been released to the public.
Before the concert, Jan and David, along with Amy Sheppard, a social worker with Stella’s Circle, stood in a circle with inmates as they lit tea lights to remember the two deceased women, Skye Martin and Samantha Piercey.
The candles flickered in the centre of a large circle of women’s name cards on the floor between the audience and singers.
Jan and David say the cards help everyone involved remember the community of women who shared their personal stories to create lullabies.
It’s a chance to just look into the eyes of everybody here and to hear your name said with love.– Jan Buley
Sheppard said the ritual of circling in around the names became a powerful tool.
“This circle is a collection of all of the women we’ve worked with over the past few months,” she said.
At first, the cards introduce the participants to each other, she said. Each week, as they return to work together, the cards become symbols of the relationships they’ve built.
“I’ve been a social worker working here for the last 10 years and we’ve done all kinds of therapeutic groups and this has been one of the most impactful projects I have worked on,” Sheppard said.
“It has been really an honour to watch the women blossom using creativity.”
Songs come ‘from people’s hearts and souls’
David Buley said when a lullaby was completed, he would record it in the prison, take it home to annotate it, and the next week present the women with their musical score — complete with their names listed as composer.
“It’s not about me coming and saying, ‘This is the kind of music you should have.’ I try not to do that,” he said.
“These are texts from people’s hearts and souls. Some of the lullabies are very poignant and sad, some of them are uptempo, and some of them are angry and have different emotions. I presented them their song written up with the author’s name and the copyright, and it was a lovely moment of, ‘I did that?’ “
The road to their first composer credit wasn’t easy. Jan Buley said not many of the women believed they could write a lullaby.
I believe that everyone is a poet and everyone is a lullaby composer. – Jan Buley
They broke down the doubt by working first on a group lullaby, Waiting for the Time. Jan Buley said that song became a kind of anthem for the women.
“We forged on and we began with memory and asked, ‘What do you miss, being here?’ and the brainstorming was so energizing and we covered three big sheets,” she said.
“I can see them on the wall. Scribbling madly ideas such as, missing the moon outside my bedroom window, missing watching birds flying free.”
On the day of the concert, before walking out onto the range to face the audience of volunteers, Department of Justice officials and guards, the lullaby composers calmed their nerves by holding hands and telling each other, “You’re beautiful.”
The women said writing the songs together brought them closer.
Listen to Angela Antle’s documentary for Atlantic Voice
With David on keyboards and Jan on guitar, the women sang songs about their love for their children, other songs asked forgiveness for missing birthdays and apologized to family for letting them down, one inmate wrote about missing her deceased mother, a woman who fostered 26 children.
Speaking truth to power
The songs were simple but incredibly powerful.
Audience members and performers dabbed their eyes with tissues. Boxes were passed back and forth.
While some of the songs were laments, others gave the women an opportunity to speak truth to power. A Labrador woman spoke about losing custody of her children when introducing her lullaby.
I have three kids and they were all taken away right at birth. I never had a chance to hold them or see them of anything like that. Today was amazing, my baby boy came into visit me and I felt really happy.– Participant in the Clarenville Correctional Centre Lullaby Project
Assistant prison superintendent Shelley Michelin was near tears when she described her pride in the women’s accomplishments.
“The fact that they opened up and composed and sat in front of a crowd of people and sang just goes to show the power that Jan and David have,” Michelin said.
“They are so positive in what can be perceived as a very negative environment. You know, these women are moms, they’re aunts, some of them are grandmothers. To be there for each other and to share their stories in this type of environment that says a lot.”
David Buley said the project gave voice to the women’s lived experiences and reminded the audience of their vulnerabilities.
“The awareness that there is a creative, deep thinking person there,” he said.
“An awareness that there’s something good and beautiful and valuable. That’s what you see on people’s faces: not surprise, but a deepening awareness.”
Jan and David Buley are continuing their work with the Lullaby Project this winter, through Stella’s Circle in downtown St. John’s.
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