Music of peace echoes at Gimcheon prison

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Music of peace echoes at Gimcheon prison

The harmonies of an all-male choir filled the Gimcheon Culture and Art Center auditorium in North Gyeongsang on Monday.

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The members of Dream Sketch were singing a new song they had helped write, “Giving Only to You,” with lyrics like: “There’s no use in regretting days spent under a dark sky. We dream together underneath the sunlight of tomorrow.”

All 18 members of the choir are inmates at the Gimcheon Correctional Institution for Boys. The young men, ranging in age from 17 to 20, have been placed there for various crimes, including robbery and murder and their sentences range from 6 to 12 years.

The concert, “Dream Sketch Love Concert with Lee Seung-chul,” represented the first time that anyone from the facility had performed off the premises.

For the day, performers were allowed to shed their prison uniforms for spiffy black suits and bow ties with roses in their breast pockets.

The inmates swayed to the music, clapping their hands as they sang pop songs to an audience of 1,000.

One female audience member compared the event to a recent film about a group of female convicts who form a choir and participate in a choral competition.

“I didn’t realize that juvenile delinquents could present such a splendid performance,” audience member Oh Yeong-suk, 46, said. “It’s as moving as ‘Harmony.’?”

Like the characters in the film, the young men from the correctional facility were singing as a way to overcome their difficulties and share their love of music.

Dream Sketch’s choirmaster is none other than legendary Korean singer-songwriter Lee Seung-chul, the former vocalist of legendary rock band Boohwal who is now a successful solo artist.

Lee has served as the choir’s music instructor since August, when the choir was formed for the filming of an SBS documentary. Since then, the choir has met once a week on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. to rehearse and tape the show.

When he started with the choir, Lee asked the members to write something about their lives. He turned the words they wrote into the song, “Giving Only to You,” that the choir performed as its finale at the concert on Monday.

It was Lee’s idea to turn the concert into a public event outside of the institution, as a way to help instill confidence and self-esteem in the young inmates, and he submitted his proposal to the Ministry of Justice in September.

“I didn’t expect the members to do so well,” Lee said after the concert. “The time I spent with them was very blissful.”

But the road to the final concert was a long one that was filled with obstacles. Some members have said that were initially skeptical about the project and some had to be coaxed to rehearse. Others had to learn the mechanics of singing from scratch, including pitch, rhythm and performance etiquette.

Even Lee admitted he was hesitant to work with a group of convicts at first. But his persistence paid off.

One young man, 17, who asked to use the alias Kim Yeong-cheol, said, “When I sing, my heart is at ease. It’s like I’m a new person.”

When he was young, Kim’s parents divorced and he was raised by his grandmother. Later, he fell in with the wrong crowd and set fire to a building, which resulted in one death and put him in jail in 2009. Music has gone a long way toward helping him change his life.

“I want to work hard to learn a skill and after my release, I want to become an exceptional member of society,” Kim said.

Like Kim, the other members of the choir have said the concert provided them with the opportunity to step outside of themselves and feel accepted by society once more.

As the concert came to a close, the audience, which included parents of the young inmates, clapped enthusiastically, some with tears glistening in their eyes. Later, Minister of Justice Kwon Jae-jin placed his arms around some of the young men and joined the choir in singing “Never Ending Story,” one of Lee Seung-chul’s songs from his Boohwal days.

With a tremor in his voice, Kwon said, “What I saw today was not a performance or a song. It was a miracle of emotion and purity.”


By Hong Gweon-sam [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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