Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"My voice changed in prison," says Antonio Agujetas. "Before, I sounded like a child. Now my voice has matured. The experience of being in prison has destroyed part of me, and that's in my singing now." Agujetas, aged 34, is a member of Cordoba prison's flamenco song workshop. Set up eight years ago as a way of encouraging gypsy prisoners to take part in educational activities, it has now reached such a high standard that some students are being coached to sing professionally. They are taught technique and lyrics, some from the prison flamenco tradition dating back to the beginning of this century, by professional guitarist Rafael Trena. This year, for the first time, he has taken four students out of the prison to perform for Andalusian penas, the societies of flamenco-lovers who are considered its most discerning audiences.

"It was wonderful when people came up to me afterwards and talked to me as a singer," says Agujetas. "You can see the surprise on their faces when you start to sing, as if they weren't expecting anything so good." Agujetas, who is three-quarters of the way through a 22-year sentence for drug-related crimes, first came to Cordoba prison to compete in the National Penitentiary Flamenco Song Contest, which grew out of the workshop. The two dozen finalists, who come from all over Spain, earn remission on their sentences, and prize-winners can transfer to Cordoba to join the workshop if they wish. Last year, flamenco dance classes started in the women's wing, and now there's a weekly mixed session at which husbands and wives in the separate wings get a chance to meet.

Away from the workshops, the "flamencos" follow the prison's set daily routine: cleaning and kitchen duties, three meals, three headcounts. Because of a recent upsurge in drug-related crime, the prison is badly overcrowded. Around 600 men and women are squeezed into a dilapidated building originally built for half that number. At exercise time, the patios are hectic. Most of the flamencos share 3m x 2.5m cells, each fitted with two bunks and a urinal. The lucky ones also have small cassette-players.

Rafael's students are typical of Cordoba's prisoners. According to Francisco Velasco, the prison director, 80 per cent are gypsy men aged between 25 and 35, serving sentences for drug-related crime. Over three-quarters of the workshop members fall into this category. In the women's wing the story is similar; most prisoners are serving short sentences related to small-scale drug sales, often on behalf of their husbands. The incidence of Aids is high in both male and female wings.

For Antonio Estevez, the prison psychologist and educationalist who set up the workshop, its success is rooted in the strength of the prison's gypsy culture. "It works because it's based on the prisoners' real world. You won't persuade a gypsy woman to go to the gym, but you might just get her interested in dancing flamenco."

The workshop's success is also rooted in the commitment of those who run it. Velasco raises its scanty local funding: Trena teaches it for just 40,000 pesetas or pounds 200 a month (less than he earns for one performance); Estevez has even dipped into his own pocket to cover costs. All three grew up in or close to gypsy quarters of the Andalusian cities where flamenco has evolved over two centuries. "Our way of seeing flamenco," says Velasco, "is as an expression of everything suffered by the Andalusian people, centuries of persecution. Those who've been pushed to the fringes of that society express it in a particularly free and spontaneous way. It is their music, just as blues has been for parts of American society."

The respect evinced by these remarks is mutual. Once, during a prison riot, inmates broke into the pharmacy, smashing the furniture in their path. Rafael's guitar, however, was not touched; instead, it was secured out of harm's way in a metal locker.

Cordoban gypsy flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortes is at the Royal Albert Hall from 10-13 October (0171 589 8212).