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World Music Matters

Live music allows French prisoners to 'escape' for an hour

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French musician Pierre Sibille (keys) and guitarist Gabriel Equerre perform at the Versailles short-stay women’s prison.
French musician Pierre Sibille (keys) and guitarist Gabriel Equerre perform at the Versailles short-stay women’s prison. Alison Hird/RFI

Conditions in France’s prisons have regularly been criticised by European institutions, but some prisons help inmates to keep their humanity through a range of cultural activities.  As part of the Jazz festival in St Germain des Prés, the women's short stay prison in Versailles opened its doors to French musicians Pierre Sibille and Gabriel Equerre.

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"Everyone has music in his life," says Sibille, "when you're in jail you need something more than the four walls."

Sibille played largely from his latest album Catch me I'm falling, a mix of his own blues/soul compositions and covers of the likes of Taj Mahal and French poet-anarchist Leo Ferré.

He has a regular slot at the Sugar Bar in New York, but performing conditions were humbler at the women's prison: speakers mounted on white plastic laundry baskets, less than perfect accoustics.

Inmates at Versailles short-stay women’s prison "escape" for an hour during a live concert
Inmates at Versailles short-stay women’s prison "escape" for an hour during a live concert Alison Hird/RFI

But Sibille has a humanist vision of what a musician should be."Either you want to be listened to by the most people or you want to be useful," he says. He's gone with the latter. 

The concert went down well. "It was like escaping from prison for a moment, says Li (not her real name) "music breaks through the walls".

"It was a shame we couldn't dance," said another inmate before returning, along with the other 30 women, to her cell.

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