When a quartet of high-profile musicians went behind bars to teach inmates songwriting, they learned a few life lessons themselves, writes Scott Kara

Prison is not really a place for crybabies. But when Warren Maxwell, and some of his music-making mates like Anika Moa, started teaching music to inmates at Rimutaka and Arohata prisons, there were tears, and lots of them, he reckons.

"That's what music is all about for me. Opening up, sharing your thoughts. We had to open up to them and in turn they opened up to us.

"It was quite liberating being that open and honest. And I think I'm like that on a daily basis but [with these prisoners] you have to take it to the next level. You have to be really open. Tears, mate. Tears. Every week."

Having the musicians come into their lives, which is documented in Maori TV's new series Songs From the Inside which starts on Sunday at 8pm, offered some hope for the inmates, including usually steely and tough-talking Arohata prisoner Lina. "Somehow," she says in the first episode, "through all this we're going to find a message, or a feeling, after being so numb for so long [in prison] - because it pays not to have feelings in here."


The 13-part series sees Maxwell, of TrinityRoots and Little Bushman, and Moa, along with Whakatane singer-songwriter Maisey Rika and bilingual songwriter Ruia Aperahama, go inside the two prisons to work with 10 inmates to write and record their own songs.

Directed by Julian Arahanga, the actor turned director who you might remember as Nig Heke in Once Were Warriors, Songs From the Inside grew out of a programme by music teacher Evan Rhys Davies who trialled it at Waikato's Springhill Prison in the late 2000s.

Though music therapy has been used in prisons around the world, Davies' premise for his programme is to get answers out of prisoners rather than locking them up and forgetting about them.

It is an approach Maxwell, and his fellow musicians, have an affinity with. Maxwell remembers seeing Davies on TV a few years ago talking about his work at Springhill, and one of the prisoners also performed a song.

"This inmate had a voice like Ben Harper, it was really raw and honest, and it was a song about him missing his kids. It brought me to tears."

So from that moment he was taken with the idea and then last year he found himself taking four male inmates through the 10-week course.

He had been to Rimutaka before, as host of arts show The Gravy, and he had seen how giving prisoners a creative outlet was beneficial.

"They all have stories, and these songs and thoughts come from places and experiences where not many people have ever been - or would want to be," he says. "And they can lay it all down, all their stories, through art, and even though they are a little bit rough around the edges in terms of musicality, the feeling and the honesty in their songs is what really gets you."


For Moa it was also a chance to work with Maori women ("my own people") who have come from a place of unrest and from a long history of abuse.

"Because I believe in music being an integral part of the healing, learning and keeping-your-mind-busy process," she says.

The four musicians realise many people will be left wondering why these convicted criminals are worthy of special treatment - not to mention a primetime slot on TV.

But, says Moa, in her typically up-front manner: "I'd say look in your own backyard before you judge others and then I'd say wait till you watch the series, these women are so funny. Most Maori people are, especially Maera."

And it's Rika who perhaps sums it up best. "I'd rather them be positive and we're just trying to give them the tools to do that. And so when they do have a bad day, they don't get up to mischief. They can go and have a sing song and write about it."

The transformation the prisoners go through during the series is also proof they deserve a second chance says Rika.

"The one who springs to mind for me is Nicole, our youngest, our baby. She was always covering her mouth when she talked and putting her head down. But then all of the sudden she was the one who stood proud, and her confidence went up and [musically] she was able to tell people exactly what she wanted in terms of how it should sound and how she wanted her work presented. She has a great voice. You will hear it."

We also meet Tama, a mountain of a man who "used to think I needed drugs or alcohol to sing a song". He is adamant he deserved everything that he got when he was jailed - but he believes he's turned his life around.

"I was a disgrace, blinded by drugs and stupidity, anger and violence," he says. "[But] freedom is not on the other side of these concrete brick walls. It's waiting to be found inside of us. I'm sad it took me this long [to find it] but it's never too late, eh?"

Getting on a level with the prisoners and getting to know them took time and trust. But once they did, deeply personal and often harrowing stories emerge, including everything from mothers admitting to the pain they caused their children to Nelly, now a mother of six, sharing her dark memories of her formative years as a young girl. Then there's a song like Abi's with the lines: "He's a demon in disguise. He's a demon. But a daddy in her eyes."

"They had never really opened up to anyone about the things they talk about in the series," says Rika. "The men were more open, and perhaps that was because of their faith. They were very churchy. The women were the total opposite - they were reserved, more staunch. I think people will learn a lot from the girls, as I did.

"It just gave me a huge appreciation of things you take for granted - I could leave those gates and hug my boy and tuck him in at night."

It's Moa who is the hard taskmaster of the bunch during the series, pushing the inmates to realise their potential and, as Rika observes of her friend, "not taking any crap".

"They started to believe in us as teachers and mentors," says Moa. "It made me proud to be there. And also we became good friends, although not good enough to smuggle drugs and smokes in for them. But close," she jokes.

It also ended up being a personally revealing "journey" for her too.

"For me it has been about taking risks. I started really scared. But now I have gained so much confidence, as have these women. Their confidence has soared with mine."

Maxwell just hopes the series will be insightful, educational and revealing. "Especially for us kind of conservative ignorant Kiwis," he says.

He includes himself in this group by the way, saying he comes from a good, solid and loving family background.

"For many of us, it's not that we are ignorant, but just that we are not exposed to this underbelly. The background these guys come from is just f****** horrendous. We have no idea. No idea at all."


What: Songs From the Inside
What: Four musicians go inside Rimutaka and Arohata prisons to teach music and songwriting
When: 8pm, Sunday, Maori TV