Beethoven behind bars: Peru rehabilitates inmates with music

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Holding a violin, saxophone or clarinet with handcuffed hands, some two-dozen prisoners were transported in an armored bus to learn music alongside the symphony orchestra in the national theater in Lima, the Peruvian capital.

The recent excursion is part of a pioneering project to rehabilitate criminals, some convicted of murder, robbery and drug trafficking. The goal is to create a prison symphony in time for when Peru celebrates its bicentennial in 2021, and things are on track: The inmates have already learned to play the theme from “Game of Thrones” and pieces by Beethoven.

For Martín Reaño, sentenced to 20 years in prison for murder, the chance to play an instrument is liberating.

The classical music sessions are an “escape, something out of the ordinary,” said 41-year-old Reaño, who keeps a keyboard, three trombones, a trumpet and a bass guitar in his small prison cell. The instruments were left behind by others who did their time and left prison.


Prisoners who attended the three-hour session at the Gran Teatro Nacional, witnessed by a team from The Associated Press and other journalists, were initially nervous. They listened in silence as Wilfredo Tarazona, head of a state music program, said the collaboration between the inmates and the orchestra was “an event without precedent” and that Peru’s prison service, which normally buys padlocks, keys and shackles, had recently spent more than $150,000 on musical instruments.

Then Tarazona led the musicians in a performance of Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich. Nearly 50 guards kept a close eye on the prisoners during the music class before escorting them back to El Callao, their coastal prison in Lima.

Days later, members of the symphony orchestra went to the prison for another round of musical collaboration.

In 2017, Peru’s prison service started music lessons for inmates, expanding on a similar national program for youth. The small-scale program operates in four out the country’s 69 prisons.

Prisoners had previously formed salsa bands at El Callao, and Reaño joined one of them after he was sent there in 2012. Then he met a trombone player who had been convicted of robbery, others helped him learn sheet music and now, he said, he was ready to take his talent to another level.

Some prisoners there never learned to read the alphabet, but can read music.

A number of ex-inmates, who face stigma in the job market because of their past, earn a little money by playing in small orchestras, said Percy Trujillano, a professional musician who teaches at El Callao.

Music “is an opportunity to be born again, to live again,” Trujillano said.

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