An impulsive turn during a pilgrimage to the deep south inspired Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli to take on a musical film project that provided inmates serving life sentences with a sense of hope, purpose and pride.
“I was planning a trip. I wanted to hook up with Highway 61, and go all the way down to New Orleans,” said Chiarelli, who will be playing the Dream Cafe on Sept. 26 to Sept. 28.
Chiarelli was born in Hamilton, the daughter of hard-working Italian immigrants. Growing up, she used to listen to radio stations in New York, and soon developed a taste for blues music.
As a performer, she carries a three-octave voice and has received a Juno Award and won every major Canadian blues award. Her first album, Road Rockets, was released in 1992. Since then, she’s added eight more albums, including the soundtrack for the her documentary film project, Music From The Big House, which premiered in 2012. The movie was shot on location at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
The idea for the film began about 14 years ago, when she was planning a road trip from Toronto with stops in Nashville and Memphis, Tenn., and Tupelo, Miss., the birthplace of Elvis Presley. While she was on the Internet mapping out points of interest, she found information about the Louisiana State prison, which she’d heard little about previously.
“Some recordings came up from Angola, from the 20s, the 30s, 40s, and it was fascinating,” she said, noting folk and blues singers such as Huddie Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”), “Hogman Maxey” and Robert Pete Williams were incarcerated there.
“These were done with somebody holding the mic up. These recordings were just, like, raw. It was absolutely fascinating.”
While cruising along Highway 61 on her trip, Chiarelli spotted a sign that read: Angola-Louisiana State Penitentiary turn right.
“I tell you honestly, I never planned any of it. There was never a plan to go there.”
On a whim, she pulled into a gas station and asked if she could use the phone to call the penitentiary.
“The gal behind the counter knew the number by heart because her boyfriend was in there,” said Chiarelli.
She told one of the female wardens who she was, that she was currently on a blues pilgrimage, asked for permission to go to the prison, and was granted access.
“She drove me around. It was 18,000 acres. It’s the size of Manhattan, roughly,” said Chiarelli. “It’s bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River and it’s an actual farm. In those days, if you can imagine, the guys still wore the stripes.”
The warden took her to the cell block where Lead Belly had been incarcerated, and where the prison used to house female prisoners. She also learned the penitentiary site was once a plantation.
“I just found the whole place really haunting,” said Chiarelli. “There’s just this vibration. All the suffering that’s happened on this land.”
About 10 years later, she submitted a proposal to hold a concert at the prison. The warden told her they’d received many proposals, including some from famous performers, and many of them were rejected.
After giving her proposal the go-ahead, Chiarelli suggested to the warden that meeting some of the musically inclined inmates and performing a concert with them would be more interesting for everybody.
Chiarelli said she had to work hard to earn their trust. She shared how she grew up in a poor family and experienced difficult times as she began her musical career, and offered a personal testimony to music’s transformational power in her life.
“They were a little skeptical and then I got up and sang with them … and sort of won them over,” she said.
When the warden told her a concert involving the inmates had never happened before, Chiarelli suggested making a movie about the experience. She contacted film director Bruce McDonald, who had used her song, Have You Seen My Shoes? in his film Roadkill. When McDonald agreed to work on the film, everything fell into place.
Chiarelli said because so many of the inmates were African Americans who were born in the south, they were rooted in blues music. Because most were raised among impoverished conditions and had experienced social injustice, they could relate to the pained lyrical expression and suffering found in the blues.
“What it did for me, was (give me) an incredible opening of the heart,” she said. “In working with these guys, it’s not always bad people that do bad things. Because of where they come from, because of where they are socially, because of what’s going on, they get into situations.”
Chiarelli said the film’s theme is about compassion and forgiveness, enveloped in music, for both herself and for the prisoners.
When they realized that Chiarelli viewed them as musicians and as people, and not as monsters, she said it gave them a sense of dignity.
“It gave them a sense of pride and a sense of purpose and a sense that maybe somebody’s listening,” she said. “We gave them a chance to tell their story if they wanted. I think for whatever time, it gave them a sense of hope and happiness, and the joy that they felt in performing.”
Both the Friday and Saturday shows are sold out. Tickets are still available for Sunday and are $40. They are available by calling 250-490-9012. Showtime is 8 p.m.