Harmony in the Big House

updated 02/15/1993 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/15/1993 01:00AM

LIKE MOST PRISONS, SAN QUENTIN IS more noted for hard time than gentle harmony. Home to 5,400 of California's most hard-bitten felons, the grim, 140-year-old state penitentiary across the bay from San Francisco echoes with the clank of metal and the clash of cultures common to any big-time lockup. Lately, though, a new sound has emerged from within the watch-towered walls. Its source: a gospel chorus made up of two most inharmonious groups—convicts and their keepers.

Formed last year, the 50-voice San Quentin Mass Choir is making itself heard far beyond the prison's walls thanks to one member of a very different California institution, the Grateful Dead. Mickey Hart, drummer for the famed San Francisco rock band, learned of the gospel choir—then an all-inmate group—last winter and went to San Quentin to hear for himself. A much traveled musicologist who has recorded groups as diverse as New Guinea tribesmen, Tibetan monks and an all-female Latvian chorus, Hart, 49, agreed to record the cons, on one condition.

"When I first heard them, they were kind of ragtag," he says. "So I said, 'You're going to have to take two months, work every day and practice to become a world-class unit. If you're interested in that, I'll be interested in you.' "

The cons accepted the challenge, sacrificing leisure time in the exercise yard, sleep and even occasional meals to rehearse. To expand the choir's vocal range, Chaplain Earl Smith sought permission to recruit female singers from the prison staff. Fraternization with inmates is normally discouraged, but Warden Daniel Vasquez, hoping to promote goodwill, consented, allowing 18 female staffers, including guards, to sing after working hours.

As soon as the group began to gel, however, two events took place that threatened the prison's uneasy peace. On April 21 death row inmate Robert Alton Harris became the first person executed in California in 25 years, casting a pall over San Quentin; eight days later rioting erupted in South Central L.A. following the Rodney King verdict, increasing animosities in the prison. "You'd walk through the yard of this pen and you could feel the tension," says chorus member Marty Martinez, 34, who was recently paroled after serving three years for family abuse. "It was like walking through a wall."

But rehearsals continued, and "as soon as the music started and the guards came off the towers and joined in, things started to transform," says Hart. Adds Martinez: "The staff began relating to us as humans instead of as objects. You'd find yourself talking to another person. You didn't care what color he was; you were just talking to another brother about the power the music has."

Finally, on May 9, the mobile unit the Dead use to record live concerts arrived, and sound technicians transformed the prison's drab, cinder-block chapel into a state-of-the-art studio. The recording was made in one marathon 16-hour session, and the following Sunday four inmates were granted permission to leave the prison (with Chaplain Smith as escort) to add finishing touches at a Berkeley sound studio. "They let us spring 'em for one day," says Hart. "The warden took a chance—no cuffs, no shackles. I couldn't record with shackles."

The result is a 10-track collection of gospel songs titled He's All I Need (available, on tape and CD, via San Quentin's Bible Studies program, 1-800-225-3323). All profits are earmarked for assorted charities, including a relief fund for the victims of inmates' crimes. "Nobody here is getting any money," says Chaplain Smith. "Our real desire is to get this music into as many homes as possible and use it to change lives."

Already, the music has changed lives inside the prison. To introduce their album, the chorus recently invited reporters, family and friends for a chapel concert. Backed by drums, organ and electric guitars, they performed for an hour, bringing the audience to its feet with their rousing gospel tunes. For many, like Carlos Donato, 31, serving 12 years for rape, the performance seemed an escape. "When I sing, I'm not here anymore," he said, brushing tears from his eyes when the concert was over. "I picture God. The walls open up, and I just breathe the fresh air."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
JOHNNY DODD in San Quentin

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