Home Culture Culture Lists

Catching the Rhythm at Rikers Jail

An intimate look inside a percussion workshop at the infamous jail featuring classic rock drummers Carmen and Vinny Appice

National Make Music Day, Rikers, Prison

Matt McGinley

Every June 21st, the longest day of the year, thousands of musicians, professional and amateur alike, put on concerts all around New York City as part of the annual Make Music Day celebration. For the second year, the NAMM-sponsored event kicked off with a performance by inmates at Rikers Island as part of the "Rhythm on Rikers" program, which features a group of mostly inexperienced prisoners learning the basics of drumming and playing in front of their fellow convicts. Led by percussionist and Make Music New York's Special Projects Coordinator Amy Garapic, in 2014 the program expanded to feature both male and female inmates, and aims to offer them a therapeutic, creative outlet as well as a new pastime once they're released. To make the inmates' special day even better, veteran drummers Carmine and Vinny Appice, who've played with the likes of Vanilla Fudge, Ozzy Osbourne, the Dio-fronted Black Sabbath, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, joined the group for the concert and offered up some pointers in a pre-show rehearsal session.

Readers' Poll: The Best Drummers of All Time

The concert came as the culmination of 10 weeks of hard work, as over 80 inmates, guards, prison officials and volunteers packed into a small, hot, loud gym at Rikers' Rose M. Singer Center to see the five prisoners – Chichi, Vanessa, Tiffany, Maribel, and Alithia – play their five-song set with the Appices, Garapic and her friends Carson Moody and John Copitts. Even if it was just for an hour, the barriers between convicts, correctional officers and civilians felt non-existent, thanks to a transcendent display of music's power. By Dan Reilly

National Make Music Day, Rikers, Prison

Matt McGinley

Inside the Singer Center

Getting to the Singer Center involves going through multiple security checkpoints, taking a bus across a bridge and driving through winding roads surrounded by miles of concertina wire, inmate facilities and more than a few buildings sitting in disrepair. The atmosphere surrounding Rikers is both desolate and oppressive, as you rarely see any signs of life or any means of getting off the island. Cell phones, nicotine products, aluminum foil and rubber bands were just some of the things visitors were told not to bring across. "I better leave this file here," Vinny Appice joked as he pulled into the Singer facility. And like many drummers, Carmine Appice couldn't stop himself from using any surface to hit sticks on, including the bars of one of the doors he had to pass through on the way to meeting the gathered inmates. 

National Make Music Day, Rikers, Prison

Matt McGinley

Drum Circle

"This is one of the biggest rooms we've ever played!" Carmine Appice said, laughing, as he entered the gym, which, with its small size and a mass of brightly colored plastic chairs, could have easily been mistaken for an elementary school's. "Are you at the point where you can do solos?" he asked, receiving a bunch of laughs and emphatic yesses in response. As the rest of the prisoners filed in, Appice spotted a rough-looking woman with dyed-blonde dreadlocks. "I said to to Vinny, 'The blonde one is a Dio fan,'" he joked. 

National Make Music Day, Rikers, Prison

Matt McGinley

Rhythm Section

The convict audience gave some of their loudest cheers after the Appices were introduced. The brothers got a particularly enthusiastic reaction when it was noted that they had played with Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath, as several inmates, black, white and Hispanic, flashed devil horns. The biggest ovation, however, came when Captain Sherry Peake, who was instrumental in getting the program started, told the remaining inmates that event organizer Amy Garapic and her team would be back next year, but, she added "hopefully you won't be."

National Make Music Day, Rikers, Prison

Matt McGinley

Leading the Workshop

Carmine Appice is used to leading performances and clinics like this in schools, but this was his first time doing it in a correctional facility. The drum virtuoso led them through his song "Urban Jungle," which he originally wrote for five drummers who blended traditional kits with 55-gallon cans, paint buckets and other reclaimed instruments. During the rendition, he led the audience along in various clapping rhythms, and surprised the participating inmates by pointing at them and telling them to solo without warning. Despite the curveball, they all rose to the occasion, improvising beats that were then repeated by the entire group.

National Make Music Day, Rikers, Prison

Matt McGinley

In the Drummer’s Seat

Some of the inmates were starstruck after playing with the Appices. "I'm never going to forget this day," a 47-year-old rock fan named Maribel said. "To meet these two guys, these are all-stars. I went to prison just to meet them!"

National Make Music Day, Rikers, Prison

Matt McGinley

Making Connections

Project co-ordinator Amy Garapic gave her contact info to each of the inmates, though last year's male group proved to be difficult to keep in touch with on the outside. "Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult to get a hold of them," she said. "We had phone numbers and addresses, we called, e-mailed, drove around to their residences and we were only able to get in touch with one person," she said. 

National Make Music Day, Rikers, Prison

Matt McGinley

The Showstopper

The final song of the concert was "Kpanlogo," a rock-influenced Ghanian song written in the Sixties that has become a staple of urban youth culture there. "It's an expression of their perspective in shaping the political vision of post colonial Africa as well as a way to set them apart form their elders," explains Garapic. Following the performance, the inmates admitted to being nervous. "I was upstairs like, 'I am not gonna do no solos.' I'm pretty shy," said inmate Vanessa, who'd never touched a drum before being imprisoned.

National Make Music Day, Rikers, Prison

Matt McGinley

Picking Up the Beat

Garapic, who broke a finger before the concert in a bike accident, gave the inmates a pep talk beforehand. The women were eligible for the program because they were non-violent offenders and behaved well during their time at Rikers. Their green outfits signify that they have been sentenced and have a release date; all but three of the 80 to 90 inmates who show up for the concert wore green, as the rest are awaiting sentencing or transfer. While visitors were allowed to take photos of the performers, photographing the rest of the inmates was forbidden because many of them are locked up unbeknownst to employers, friends and, sometimes, family. 

National Make Music Day, Rikers, Prison

Matt McGinley

The Band

The inaugural Rhythm on Rikers female band, with Maribel, Tiffany, Vanessa and Alithia standing and Chichi, who's been incarcerated for nearly a year for shoplifting, flashing the peace sign. "I'm going to stay in touch with them," Chichi said. "I leave next Friday, and I'm going to volunteer and stay involved."

Show Comments