Music from the Big House & My Pick of the Week
It became apparent some time ago that Rita Chiarelli
is an artist in the true sense of the word.
While many of us were introduced to the dynamic and intense singer-songwriter and performer in stock blues settings and venues, some 16 or 17 years ago, when she was touring behind her debut album Just Getting Started
, Chiarelli has since that time consistently revealed herself as an artist of considerable depth.
The Hamilton-born musician has always been on the search for new artistic challenges, and unique forums in which to express herself. Chiarelli’s 2006 recording and touring project Cuore: The Italian Sessions was the ideal project to showcase her operatic vocal range as she performed folk material from the Roman and Neopolitan regions of the country her parents emigrated from so many years ago.
The critical acclaim for Cuore was repeated two years later when Chiarelli collaborated with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. The end result was a collection of intoxicating performances under the banner Uptown Goes Downtown.
Amidst these projects Chiarelli continued to lay out “the blues” in concert halls and cabarets, in a powerhouse fashion that more often than not found her in the company of respected blues guitarist Papa John King.
So it was heartwarming to walk into the Empire Theatre Complex in downtown Edmonton on Friday October 1, for a Edmonton International Film Festival screening of Chiarelli’s latest project, Music From The Big House
, and see that some 300 plus patrons were anxiously awaiting the house lights to dim. These were fans of, not only Chiarelli, but director Bruce McDonald of Hardcore Logo and Highway 61 fame, and the blues, and all in attendance presumably wanting to head inside the gates of Louisiana’s Angola prison with the performer, director and their crew.
For most artists, the idea of making one’s way inside the notorious prison walls would be nothing more than a fleeting dream, for Chiarelli, the making of Music From The Big House
was a dream that became more vivid and real as ten years of tenacity and a brilliantly defined vision became reality.
Angola has a past that rivals that of any North American prison when it comes to a history coated with violence, degradation, suffering, and living and working conditions that were appalling.
Legendary bluesmen such as Leadbelly and Robert Pete Williams served time in Angola and there are a number of compilations and field recordings of Angola inmates performing decades ago, that are still available.
So count on Chiarelli, while on a musical pilgrimage through the south a decade ago, to find herself within a stones’ throw of the prison walls and deciding she wants to visit this infamous prison.
“I went to a convenience store, gas station near the prison and asked the attendant if she had a phone book, so I could call the prison warden and request a tour,” recalled Chiarelli in a Q&A session held after the screening and hosted by CKUA’s Tony King.
“Well the attendant looked at me and she recited the phone number because her boyfriend was in Angola,” continued the musician with a new mission.
Her request granted, Chiarelli developed a rapport with the warden who had been responsible for turning the page on Angola’s past, and over time Chiarelli made a number of visits to the institution, and ultimately won the respect of prisoners who were part of Angola’s music program.
The core of the documentary, which had been screened the previous night at the Calgary International Film Festival to rave reviews, focuses on the time spent leading up to a prison chapel concert where Rita performed with a gospel group, a blues band and a country band.
An important piece of work, McDonald and Chiarelli, sympathetically examined the plight of the prisoners and their emotional, and in some cases spiritual growth, in situations that are hard if not impossible to fully grasp for those of us living on the outside. The two did not ignore the lasting implications of the inmate’s crimes on victims’ families and community.Music From The Big House
is both inspiring and enlightening and dispenses much food for thought.
“My hope is to take it back across the country to art houses and screen the film in conjunction with my performing solo concerts,” says Chiarelli who is also working on an accompanying soundtrack to the film.
Tony King, who did an excellent job directing traffic in the post screening Q&A was equally enthusiastic with what he saw, and summed up the film with this succinct and spot on review.
"Shot in two and a half days, Music from the Big House is and sparkling example of what can happen when two gifted individuals with a passion for music combine forces to share something incredibly special. Armed with an acoustic guitar, Rita Chiarelli stars in Bruce McDonald's latest film chronicling the magic that can happen when those living in difficult circumstances are touched by music. Angola is Louisiana’s notoriously bloody prison, housing some of the most dangerous criminals in the U.S. - using her warmth and unassuming manner Rita Chiarelli penetrates the musical soul of Angola. At once breathtaking and profound, audiences will walk away never having enjoyed spending an hour and a half in jail quite so much! A near perfect movie!"
-Tony King, host CKUA’s Alberta Morning
We’ll do our best to keep you informed on future screenings of Music From The Big House
A decade ago violinist, educator, and composer Matt Glaser
brought together an ensemble of brilliant instrumentalists and singers under the banner The Wayfaring Strangers, and the Shifting Sands of Time album sat not only near the top of my list of favorite albums for 2001, but my top 50 for the entire decade.
Well Glaser comes to Edmonton, unfortunately only Edmonton, as a guest of folkwaysAlive! and the U of A’s Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology this week. Glaser will interact with students for a few days, but the public will be able to see the master musician, who served as the chair of the string department at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston for a quarter century and who recently founded, and guides, Berklee’s American Roots Music Program, in concert.
Glazer, will perform with four Alberta-based musicians, including jazz pianist Wayne Feschuk and fiddle player Daniel Gervais on Friday Oct. 15, at 8:00 p.m. in Convocation Hall on the U of A campus. Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for students.
If you are in the central Alberta this is my pick of the week as Glazer’s resume, that includes work with filmmaker Ken Burns, and performances with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Stephane Grappelli, Bob Dylan, Mark O’Connor and Lee Konitz, speaks for itself.
Tickets for the concert are available at Tix On The Square or at the door and in November we will be airing an hour of music and conversation with Glaser on Points North.