The Hensley Trio Music Performance at Prey Sar Prison, Cambodia (Part 2)


all pics courtesy of
Steve Porte

Representatives of The Office Of The High Commissioner For Human Rights with the Governor of Correctional Center 2, Phnom Penh, and performers The Hensley Trio and Miss Sarawan, 26th October 2017.

When The Hensley Trio launched full strength into the great American song ‘Black Caffeine’ (Emmylou Harris / Rodney Crowell version) the power of music was clear. Here we were at the Prey Sar Prison in Cambodia at 8:30 am performing a powerful song about coffee…the words in English, being sung to a mostly Khmer speaking audience. Once that driving rhythm got going, capturing the universal vibe of coffee like no other, the small brave group of prisoners dancing in front of us quickly swelled to three times the size. There it was, the strong pumping beat of the song, dissolving the remaining shyness of the inmates who had gathered along the perimeter of the courtyard fence. The connection had been made!  Mission success! Amazing!

However, the day did not start out like that at all.

After five months of negotiating with the OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), meetings, many emails and musician scheduling issues, there we were as planned at the 6am meeting point in front of The Cambodian National Art Museum. The fantastic photographer, Mr. Steve Porte, who agreed to accompany us – even though photography would not be allowed in the prison during the performance – humorously said “I just want to see if musicians are actually awake at that hour and photograph it”!

Yes, we were up, boxes of sound gear, instruments, all ready to go. The first problem…..although a driver and mini-van had been scheduled, deposit paid and instructions given SEVERAL times… driver! A quick call was made….no driver was coming. Ugh, Cambodia I love you and I curse you! All this planning and effort thwarted because some dude decides he can’t be bothered to get out of bed? Double ugh!

Joe, Miss Sarawan, and driver. Not really awake but on the road, on-time.

We had been clearly informed of the rigid time schedule the prisoners were on……we miss the scheduled time and no music performance, full stop. However, musicians are WAY more clever, resourceful and talented than just performing music. Mr. Joe Wrigley, veteran of the music scene/business (Joe Wrigley and the Jumping Jacks) snapped into action! Mobile computer opened, apps connected and “voila!” a new driver and van magically appeared and The Hensley Trio along with Miss Sarawan were loaded up and headed off to the UN office and onwards to the prison with no time to spare.

Upon arriving at the Prey Sar with our UN guides and meeting prison officials’ things went smoothly. Mobile phones/devices were surrendered, prisoners helped carry the sound gear and we entered the prison gate into a large courtyard and setup. We were well aware that we were at the Women’s Ward for Low Risk Offenders so we knew things would not be so “heavy”. Frankly speaking though, it was so relaxed it seemed like just another Cambodian village waking up to morning rituals. Coconut and ice vendors were plying their trade in the large clean courtyard, a new Buddhist shrine was clearly visible for prayers, a few guards mingled here and there without guns, some Red Cross officials were making their rounds and several hundred prisoners, some with their children, milled about starting their day.

After some brief introductions, a few warm up songs and the performance of “Black Caffeine” we had undoubtedly gotten the attention of the prison courtyard….but that was just the start. The always fabulous Miss Sarwan (Cambodian, Mealea Lay) launched into Khmer songs and lit everyone up like fireworks. Prisoners now streamed into the courtyard and by way of some unspoken language that only Cambodians know, lined up dancing. Curious children appeared directly in front of us, a tambourine was passed around, direct smiles and comments exchanged, walls and barriers dropped. Then, the best surprise, a few of the prisoners got up and sang Khmer songs and they were good! There it was, the power of music to heal and connect. Amazing!

Of note, yes it was amazing and we kept to our performance mission of “Non-political and non-religious” song/music material. Of course at the end of it we were allowed to leave. None of us are naive enough to believe one music performance will turn around an entire ward of prisoners. We can say, however, an incredible connection happened and if that made a positive difference for even one person…’s all worth it.

Singer Marianna Hensley preparing for the early-morning show

Finally, my thanks to my fellow musicians, Marianna Hensley, Joe Wrigley and the “always fabulous” Miss Sarawan (Mealea Lay). To the photographer, Steve Porte, you have your proof, musicians were awake at 6am in the morning!  And of course, thanks again everyone at OHCHR, especially Ms. Hanae Hanzawa for her assistance to make this happen. I dedicate this performance to my late Grandfather, Dr. John W. Speck Senior, prison doctor at Jackson State Prison, Michigan, USA (1930’s-40’s).

James Speck


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