Musicians are known for getting into trouble, and one or two have even done time, but in Maori Television’s new series Songs from the Inside, four musicians, Anika Moa, Ruia Aperahama, Warren Maxwell and Maisey Rika, willingly head into Arohata and Rimutaka prisons to teach songwriting to prisoners. “Going in I was scared,” Moa admits, “but meeting these women, they just reminded me of my aunties or my cousins.”
They must have picked the most motivated prisoners for you to work with? I’m guessing they didn’t choose people who’d murdered people. I think they chose people with lesser offences, people who were more outgoing and more socially acceptable – they chose some characters. We had Lina, the tough girl, and Maera, the no-teeth mother-of-six crack-up.
It’s all very well having written songs, but it must be a very different thing to show someone else how to do it. We had Evan Rhys Davies, who has actually done his own version of this – he went in there and taught men music – he came every Wednesday morning and taught us how to be teachers. I found it interesting to have to re-relay his information to them, it was all very English orientated. We had to revise ye Shakespeare poems and all that sort of stuff, which I didn’t actually relate to, but we had to get them to relate to it so they could write songs.
How to write lyrics? Absolutely, and learning how to make certain paragraphs stand out, and get a range of emotion by using these verbs and these nouns, which I already knew subconsciously, but to say it just messes you up, and you just go, “Oh, it’s too hard!” and you just want to go to sleep.
Did you find you’d been doing that all along as a kind-of natural instinct? It’s very instinctive, and once you get told it, it kind-of ruins the magic. But it helped them. Maisey was mostly in charge of that area; if I’m truthful, I found it boring, and sometimes the girls found it boring too, sometimes Maera would be like, “Miss, this is f—en boring, lets do something else!” She’s a very honest woman! Then I’d be, “Let’s all sing now”. My theory was that the more you sing and play, the more you write.
Was it quite hard to get them to open up, to find the stories? I think it was, but in a situation when you’re in a room of women, it’s very intimidating. I tried to get their musical side, to bring it to the front and their vulnerability with their songwriting. Most of them write about their children and the remorse they felt being in prison while their children were outside. Their only focus was their children, focusing on themselves was last. Which was interesting.
That’s mothers for you isn’t it? Yeah. I feel sorry for dads too when they go to jail, they’re meant to be the people who support their children, who work for their children and that gives them their manliness, but to go to prison and get your child to visit you in prison just strips any confidence or manliness away from you.
Did you form an impression of what our prison system is like, whether it’s helping to rehabilitate people? The last episode we filmed, they showed us through the prison, and I felt like crying the whole time I was there. The cells were tiny, they had the toilet bowls next to the head of the bed. Arohata is really old, and there’s only about a150 prisoners. It’s scary, cold, dark, damp, grey. But all the prisoners were so happy when we walked through – one minute they were smoking in the courtyard and the next Anika Moa walks in. They were like, “The f— are you doing here?” “Can I have an autograph?” “Sign my tits?” I felt really cool, but I felt really sad and really guilty that I was actually kind-of window-gazing. I just wanted to cuddle them all and make them feel good.
SONGS FROM THE INSIDE, Maori Television, Sunday, 8.00pm.