Umoja Men’s Chorus Brings Beautiful Music From Inside Prison Walls

A new CD from Umoja Men's Chorus, conducted by Catherine Roma(Photo: Umoja Men's Chorus)
A new CD from Umoja Men's Chorus, conducted by Catherine Roma(Photo: Umoja Men's Chorus)

A few years ago I worked on an original broadcast series called Ohio Arts Alive. I wanted to get to other parts of our state and look at people and programs somewhat off the classical music grid. A number of calls and emails led me to Dr. Catherine Roma.

Roma is on the faculty of Wilmington College. She conducts the MUSE choir and is active musically and politically.  She became someone I admire tremendously.

Cathy invited me to the Warren Correctional Institution in Lebanon, Ohio.  She conducts a choir of inmates called Umoja (unity).

The rehearsal was at 8 am on a cold blustery day. It was my first visit to a prison. The men were crowded into a very small room with a rickety keyboard. Catherine immediately took charge. She led some vocalises and warm up exercises. The men sang lustily and with great sincerity. The chorus was impressive. The surroundings were austere, but the sound and the room were not.

Last year, Umoja released their CD titled, Extend a Hand. All of the music was composed and is performed by inmates. It’s a powerful and beautifully sung collection. I’m using it on Musica Sacra on Sunday nights.

The choir participated in the 2012 World Choir Games. Admittedly, the judges had to come to Umjoa.

I had a chance to visit with the men. They had a nice brotherhood going on. Nobody pretended to be innocent or anything but inmates. Still, the men had a lot of hope-and found a release in music. Most were fathers. Some were grandfathers. Can you imagine having a grandpa in prison?

The funding for Umoja is going away. Hopefully the hope of the music will not.