Features / Changing Tunes

Celebrating 30 years of Changing Tunes

By ellie pipe, Thursday Oct 19, 2017

It was in 1987 that one man and his guitar recognised the power of music to help heal and rehabilitate prisoners. Three decades on, the Bristol-based charity he founded continues to change lives. 

A musty, damp smell lingers in the small, rat-infested cabin, where bar-covered windows overlook an imposing, wire-topped fence. Yet to the men who frequent it, this space represents a place of refuge and escape.

It is a warm morning, but despite the sunshine overhead and impressive outer buildings, the atmosphere inside HMP Bristol in Horfield is bleak. Men in grey tracksuits shuffle about their morning routine. Some greet each other or exchange a brief word with guards; many keep heads down, avoiding eye contact.

Rob Davies, musician in residence for Changing Tunes, is waiting for the inmates taking part in this morning’s music session. He is rarely certain of who will be coming along, as men get moved on at short notice – such is the unsettling nature of prison life.

HMP Bristol in Horfield, a category B men’s prison

The group are escorted to the cabin and two long-time musicians waste no time in settling in among the cluster of wires, instruments and stools.

Jim* picks up a guitar and begins tuning. The muscles in his neck relax as he runs his hands over the strings.

“It’s soul destroying being in here and this gives you something to look forward to,” he says. “This is a bit of normality where you can forget where you are.”

Jim, 57, has been playing the guitar all his adult life and, like many of the people involved in Changing Tunes, seeks solace in music.

“I’ve been here about a year and a half,” he says of his time in Horfield. “I had a few marijuana plants and other things and I wouldn’t give police any other names so they threw the book at me. I’ll be drawing my pension before I get out of here.”

Changing Tunes works by sending musicians into prisons and running music workshops, with the emphasis on rehabilitation rather than retribution.

Rob is busy helping a new recruit master a basic drum beat with a light, encouraging tone that is already working wonders.

The youngest of the group, Shaun*, has been here for just a week. He got into a fight after a few drinks in town one fateful night and was found guilty of actual bodily harm (ABH). He has to serve four months.

Dishevelled and wearing shoes trodden down at the back, Shaun sits hunched forward; he doesn’t make eye contact with anyone and seems tense, poised to react. Yet under Rob’s gentle guidance, he is putting everything into mastering the drums for the first time.

Eyes closed in concentration, he is visibly frustrated every time he misses a beat, but as he finds a rhythm, a glimmer of a smile flickers across his face.

The dank room transforms into a vibrant jamming session as the men begin to relax in each other’s company and belt out songs.

They do some covers and a couple of originals written by Will* – a seasoned musician who is unwilling to talk about why he is in prison, but says he finds release in song-writing while inside.

One of his originals has been entered into the Koestler Awards – for arts by offenders, secure patients and detainees. A few past awards are taped to the walls of the cabin.

Opening up after the uplifting music session, Shaun says: “The hardest thing is going from working 40 hours a week to nothing – it’s hard, your mind goes when you are locked up.”

He said the prisoners often get only 45 minutes outside a day, sometimes not even that, and the rest of the time is a constant battle with loneliness and keeping your guard up to stay out of trouble with other inmates.

“One thing that really changed my mind about prisons was when you meet someone and think ‘that could have been me’,” says Rob.

“A lot of the guys we meet have not had the greatest start in life. We are giving someone a chance and that’s what I really believe in. When you get to meet them, you realise they are people. There are some you think should be in prison, but a lot just made the wrong choices.”

He adds that the governor of HMP Bristol is supportive of the work Changing Tunes does.

Changing Tunes founder and patron, Richard Pendlebury, (left) pictured with the charity’s operations manager, Gareth Hamer

Horfield is where it all began for the charity that now works in prisons across the country and also runs workshops for ex-offenders to keep the rehabilitation process going on the outside.

Its work will be showcased in a 30th anniversary celebration concert at Redland Parish Church on Saturday, October 21.

The charity also ran a successful fundraising campaign to enable the release of its first full length album, featuring service users alongside high profile names including Billy Bragg, Megan Henwood and Frank Turner.

Bristol24/7 was given exclusive access to the recording session.

A group of musicians who credit Changing Tunes with helping them turn their lives around. pictured with Billy Bragg at the first recording session.

In the heart of the Bath countryside, a recording studio owned by drummer Charlie Grimsdale, of music company Funnel Music, plays host to a motley collection of musicians hard at work on a new song.

Like many bands, the men have a shared past. The only difference here is that they are all ex-prisoners, who have done several decades of time between them and got caught up in the system, but – against all odds – managed to move on and find a new purpose in life.

All were introduced to Changing Tunes in prison and have kept up playing together regularly on the outside.

They are working on a song about freedom and change, written with musician and political commentator Billy Bragg, which will be included on the anniversary album.

Watching Bryan, 65, channel his energy into the music, it is hard to believe he was once a violent criminal who got caught up in paramilitary action and spent a total of 25 years in prison.

“It was the Irish trouble back in 1974 that it all started for me,” he says, speaking candidly about his past.

“A lot of my friends were killed by the IRA and then I got involved in paramilitary action.

“When I went into prison, I was going to commit suicide – I lost my business and my family. Then I became a Christian in prison and started playing with Changing Tunes. They have been really supportive. It really helped me get my head together.

“I’m a much better person than I was. I’m just happy to be here really.”

Bandmate Vincent is a former heroin addict who knows all too well what it’s like to be at rock bottom. Now 55, he is eight years clean and has a job with substance misuse services.

“It was hard work but to be honest, once I stopped doing drugs, life got a lot easier,” he says.

“Being involved with Changing Tunes helped me a lot. It was just nice to have people on the outside, it would not have mattered if they were prisoners or not. The band sessions were something to look forward and something to give me some kind of hope. “

Charlie Grimsdale and Billy Bragg behind the scenes

Bragg, who launched his own initiative, Jail Guitar Doors, to provide instruments for people in prison, says: “I believe that song writing is a way of allowing people to deal with the challenges that they face. It’s a form of therapy.”

In providing a break from the crushing and demoralising regime of prison life, the charity continues to break the cycle of criminality facing all too many inmates.

*The names of prisoners have been changed to protect their identities.

The Changing Tunes 30th anniversary concert will take place in Redland Parish Church on Saturday, October 21 from 7pm. Visit www.changingtunes.org.uk/events for tickets.


Read more: 30th anniversary album for Bristol charity, Changing Tunes

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