The musical talent of San Quentin was on full display during a festive holiday concert in the Garden Chapel.
On consecutive nights in mid-December, the event featured a medley of musical styles — ranging from spoken word to bluegrass to hard rock — performed by residents to a packed house amid colorful Christmas decorations.
“I’ve been incarcerated for almost 14 years, and I’ve never had so much joy and enjoyment in anything,” said chorus vocalist M. Perry.
The concert was appreciated by participants, staff, and members of the audience alike, but for participants, it was more than just a performance.
“We need more opportunities such as this to be an integral part of our rehabilitation efforts,” said resident John Zeretske, a violin virtuoso and one of the show’s producers. “The arts can and should be a key component of prison and justice reform.”
The concert was the culmination of a three-month long “wintertime music workshop” organized by San Quentin staff.
Participants were effusive in their praise of prison staff and administrators for making the workshop happen. Vocalist Nicholas Casteel said the workshop “allowed each of us to explore our own artistic abilities while melding us together as a group for the performance.”
Before the concert, Zeretske gathered participants together backstage to share words of encouragement and inspiration. “Remember, it’s not coming from the outside in, it’s from the inside out. We’re shining and that shining goes to every audience member. We are touching lives and showing the human potential. I applaud you all. We are becoming leaders again,” he said to an eruption of cheers.
Community member Kathryn Brister, who has produced musical events, volunteered to help with the concert. “It’s been a really rewarding experience for me,” she said. “I’ve been blown away by what I’ve seen over the last several days.”
Brister says she believes music is one of the keys to positive transformation and rehabilitation in prison. “Music is the universal language,” she added.
She was impressed by the way the participants came together to support each other to pull off the performance. “We have absolute rock bottom beginners as well as polished professionals all performing together,” Brister said. “The pros helped the beginners find a role that worked for them and supported them in learning their parts.”
The musical evening kicked off with This Is Me from the soundtrack of The Greatest Showman, featuring Casteel on vocals backed by the SQ Chorus and a full band. Resident rap artists Kunta Rigmaden and Rico Schoppe added a touch of flair with passionate spoken words during the piece about their journey through incarceration and finding redemption.
Rigmaden said afterwards that the workshop allowed him to express his creative side. “I was able to give everything I had to offer, and through my words and art, open up and be vulnerable with a bunch of strangers,” he said.
After the applause died down, emcee and violinist Henok Rufael welcomed the audience to the event. “However you celebrate this season, thank you for showing up and engaging the community. It’s been a long year. They say it takes ten-thousand hours to master an instrument, and I’m sure we have more than that up here into this.”
The gospel classic Joy to the World was performed next, followed by a fast-paced bluegrass song featuring a talented quartet of violinists led by Zeretzke.
During the song, Gordon “Flash” Kimbrough performed a unique solo by hammering the strings of a horizontal violin with fiddle sticks, producing a beautiful and evocative sound. The energetic performance received some of the loudest applause of the night.
Among the appreciative fans in attendance were SQ Warden Ron Broomfield and his wife, Kim. “The work everyone has put into this event is amazing,” said Mrs. Broomfield. “They all demonstrate what my husband articulates, which is simply that rehabilitation works at San Quentin.”
A song by “The Blues Brothers” followed next, featuring nine acoustic guitars taking turns soloing and playing rhythm with a violin solo by Daniel Le thrown in for good measure.
The “Gypsy Roma Waifs” performed several short pieces featuring Spanish-style guitar and crisp vocals that got the audience clapping along to the beat.
A hauntingly beautiful and folk piece titled The Wedding Song was performed on guitar and vocals by Robert Calthall with violin accents provided by Rufael. “Don’t despair, just get ready to see the ones you love and fly away from here,” he sang.
After these slower songs, the pace was jumpstarted back into to high gear with a hard-rock rendition of Wreck the Halls with shredding electric guitars solos. The bassist looked like he had stepped out of a hair-metal band video. Not to be outdone, the “Pulsemus Quintet” followed by pounding out intricate rhythms on their conga drums.
One of the highlights was the phenomenal classical-guitar playing of Lee Jasper on The Christmas Song and Spanish Gypsy Greensleeves, which was met with thunderous applause. His lightening quick fingers made it sound as if more than one person was playing his guitar.
To give the stagehands time to do their work, recitations of Katherine May’s Wintertime were sprinkled throughout the performance. “Wisdom resides in those who have wintered … we sing out like birds and let our voices fill the air,” read one line.
Some of that wisdom was expressed by the “song birds” on stage when they reflected on their experiences in the workshop.
Casteel said it was “an opportunity to set aside cultural differences and unite as one in healing and in peace. This program took a group of people who wouldn’t have typically converged and united us.”
Rigmaden said it was amazing “watching and listening to everybody playing their instruments or singing their song. You were able to … see how music was a saving grace that we all have in common.”
To end the night, a touching rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine was performed before the final bow. The song started with spoken words by Rigmaden with the full choir and band slowly joining in. Lawrence “Tank” Cox led the way on the keyboard.
“Can you imagine all the people, living lives of peace?” sang out the performers while members of the audience added their voices to Lennon’s iconic lyrics.