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A mashup of music and cultures: Inmates join senior citizens in Young@Heart Chorus

  • Daniel McNair talks with Ken Maiuri during a Young@Heart Chorus rehearsal for the Prison Project show at the Academy of Music. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel McNair rehearse a song with the Young@Heart Chorus. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bob Cilman, the director of the Young@Heart Chorus, leads the group in a rehearsal at the Florence Civic Center last week in preparation for Sunday’s Young@Heart Chorus Mash-Up V.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel McNair and Bill Sheppard rehearse a song with the Young@Heart Chorus at the Florence Civic Center last week in preparation for Sunday’s Young@Heart Chorus Mash-Up V. McNair is a part of the chorus’ “Prison Project” which began in 2014. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel McNair and Bill Sheppard rehearse a song with the Young@Heart chorus. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel McNair and Steve Martin rehearse at the Florence Civic Center in preparation for Sunday’s Young@Heart Chorus Mash-Up V. McNair is a part of the chorus’ “Prison Project” which began in 2014. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bob Cilman, the director of the Young@Heart Chorus, leads the group in a rehearsal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel McNair listens to the Young@Heart Chorus as he waits for his part during rehearsal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bob Cilman, the director of the Young@Heart Chorus, leads Daniel McNair and Steve Martin in a song during a rehearsal at the Florence Civic Center in preparation for Sunday’s Young@Heart Chorus Mash-Up V. McNair is a part of the chorus’ “Prison Project” which began in 2014. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel McNair and Beda Polanco rehearse a song with the Young@Heart Chorus. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bob Cilman, the director of the Young@Heart Chorus, leads the group in a rehearsal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel McNair rehearses a song with the Young@Heart chorus at the Florence Civic Center in preparation for Sunday’s Young@Heart Chorus Mash-Up V. McNair is a part of the chorus’ “Prison Project” which began in 2014. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bob Cilman, the director of the Young@Heart Chorus, leads the group in a rehearsal at the Florence Civic Center last week in preparation for Sunday’s Young@Heart Chorus Mash-Up V.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



@ecutts_HG
Friday, November 17, 2017

For many, music is an escape. For Daniel McNair, singing is a chance to feel free when he is anything but free.

In preparation for a Sunday concert at the Academy of Music with the Young@Heart Chorus and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, McNair, an inmate at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction in Northampton, attended rehearsals at the Florence Civic Center last week. During a brief break, McNair said that when he joined Young@Heart three years ago, he had always been a fan of music and wanted to try something different, something new.

“It was fun. It helped relieve stress,” said McNair, a tall man with neat cornrows. “It made me feel like I was free, like I was out.”

For those past three years, McNair has been a member of the Prison Project chorus, an ongoing musical collaboration between Young@Heart and local inmates. In 2014, the project grew out of the long-running Young@Heart Chorus, founded by Bob Cilman and Judith Sharpe in 1982 with a group from the Walter Salvo House, the elderly housing project in Northampton.

In these parts, Young@Heart has long since achieved celebrity status, thanks in part to the group’s 2007 documentary of the same name. The inmates started getting involved years after the senior chorus first performed at the men’s jail while touring for the film.

“We did a concert for the guys, and the morning of the concert, one of our members died,” longtime Young@Heart director Cilman said of the 2006 performance. “It was really an emotional day, and in the film, it is really a strong scene. Our performing for them and the inmates’ reactions … At that point, I said I wanted to go back and not to perform for them but with them. It took us a long time to get there.”

Following the release of the film, the chorus was busy working and touring, off and on, from 2007 to 2013. In 2014, the chorus stopped touring.

“We wanted to do something in the community,” Cilman said.

Last week, about a dozen men sat around the jail library in red plastic chairs for an hour-long practice. Singing a pop song, some of the younger men in the choir perked up, bobbing their heads or getting up out of their seat to dance a little.

While men in both the medium and minimum security units of the House of Corrections can participate in the jail chorus, which meets weekly, the inmates who perform and rehearse outside of the facility can only come from minimum security. This is the first time those with the Prison Project have been part of the Mash-Up concert. It will also be the first time McNair, 31, of Springfield, will perform in public — with just six months left before he gets out. He’s singing a number of songs that require him to step out in front of Young@Heart, despite his nervousness in singing in front of a crowd.

When Cilman first started rehearsals in the jail, he said there was a lot of skepticism from the inmates.

“It was very interesting. Some of the best singers, like Daniel, were not in minimum at that point, so they couldn’t come out and perform with us, but they worked with the guys who could come out and perform with us,” Cilman said. “Daniel was one of the key singers of that group, and I think he gave a lot of people inspiration to be able to get up there and sing. Hardly any of them were as talented as he was, singing wise, but he was supportive.”

Cilman said McNair has been an important member of the group since its beginning, and when he found out that McNair was in minimum security, Cilman really wanted him to be able to sing at the Academy of Music, where Young@Heart and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus perform Sunday at 3 p.m. 

Before making it to rehearsal with Young@Heart at the Florence Civic Center, McNair spent time as part of the jail chorus. While McNair hasn’t been to rehearsals in the jail’s library recently, that chorus still remains strong.

At the jail, the men choose the songs they would like to sing. The songs span decades, unlike the inmates — most appeared to be under 30, wearing a mix of blue chino pants and sweats, some tattooed, some baby-faced. Singing Justin Bieber one minute, the inmates seamlessly switched to the Beatles and then to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, adding their own flare and sometimes even their own verses. One of the most surprising, and moving, song selections was the Ray Charles piece “Drown in My Own Tears,” which was released in 1960 — decades before the young man who chose to sing it was born.

In between songs, two of the Young@Heart chorus members who attended the rehearsal shared their memories of what life was like when the Beatles’ song, “A Day in the Life,” came out in 1967, as a couple of inmates listened in. 

At the end of the jail chorus practice last Wednesday, one man performed an original piece, a mix of singing and rapping. He used the side of a bookshelf to lay down the beat while local musician (and the Gazette’s longtime music columnist) Ken Maiuri added accompaniment on keyboard. By the end of the hour, none of the men seemed ready to leave. They hung around a little while longer, one even grabbing a guitar to play a quick song or two before heading back out into the facility.

While rehearsal is a loud moment in an otherwise quiet day for many the inmates, the volume of the jail chorus is nothing compared to the rehearsals in Florence. McNair said the Young@Heart Chorus is louder and more animated. And working with the older members of the group, McNair said he has learned how to appreciate life a little more.

“It’s been great. Everybody is very respectful. They don’t look at you any different because of my situation,” he said. “I feel love. I feel like they became a part of my family a little bit.”

By the end of the Young@Heart rehearsal in Florence, McNair had loosened up. Running through a medley featuring “Let Me Love You” by Mario, McNair hit his notes with ease.

“I think Daniel is going to get a lot of love from the chorus, a lot of love from the audience, and I hope he’ll do really well,” Cilman said after Thursday’s rehearsal. “He’s got a gift, but just because you have a gift doesn’t mean you know how to use it, so this will be a really interesting challenge for him. He’ll do fine, he’s a great singer.”

McNair isn’t the only one benefiting from the experience. The young men have brought new life — and new songs — to Young@Heart.

“They’ve really opened us musically to a whole new world, and that has been a real gift for Young@Heart,” Cilman said. “It broadens our horizons. They’ve really opened us up to stuff that we wouldn’t have thought of without working with them.” 

In her fourth year with the chorus, Easthampton resident Sara Lee Bartley, 78, said before rehearsal this past Monday that she loves the spirit the men bring to the chorus.

“Most of them have had a challenge and got off track, but haven’t we all had challenges?” she asked. “They are so young. You cheer for them, and I’m happy for them.”

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.

The Young@Heart Chorus, along with two men from the Prison Project, will take the stage Sunday at 3 p.m. with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus as part of the Young@Heart Mash-Up at the Academy of Music, 274 Main Street, Northampton.