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South African singer-songwriter's melody unchained in prison

Larry Joe finds in solitary confinement the peace of mind he needed to develop his talent. A producer helps him make a CD in a cell-turned-studio.

January 14, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Larry Joe plays the guitar in the corner of the bathroom of his cell, where he composed 80% of his music. Music producer Aron Turest-Swartz helped him record an album in his cell.
Larry Joe plays the guitar in the corner of the bathroom of his cell, where… (Jonx Pillemer / For the Los…)

Reporting from Douglas, South Africa — Larry Joe can see only seven stars in his small slice of sky.

He has spent nearly three years with those stars outside his slatted window, counting the days of his sentence for housebreaking in Douglas Correctional Center in South Africa's Northern Cape province.

But he has a guitar, his songs and a wild, untamable hope.

"I want to be a bright, bright star." His voice is wistful, as soft as velvet. "I want people, when they hear me, to see the darkness a little less."

The first seven months in prison he thought about "everything": what he'd done, how things had gone so wrong.

"I was thinking, 'Why did that happen?' and 'Why did that happen?' After eight months, I was thinked up. Then the guy next to me would say, 'What are you thinking about?' I'd say, 'Nothing. Nothing.'"

He asked to be put into solitary confinement, where he spent many months, and he started to write songs.

"I started to put my feelings in words," said Larry Joe, 31, who asked that only his stage name be used. "I wanted my guitar to sound exactly the way I felt." He strums his guitar and sings, his voice so sweet that it's heartbreaking.

Prison could have broken Larry Joe: It hurt unbearably when two people he loved as much as anyone died while he was behind bars and he couldn't see them buried.

But prison didn't break the balladeer. Instead, it made him, as an artist and as a man. He decided he was not such a bad man that he couldn't be a good one.


It was Dec. 1, 2008, and one of South Africa's top musical groups, Freshly Ground, had found itself in Douglas for a concert to mark World AIDS Day. The emcee pumped up the crowd, mainly Afrikaans-speaking mixed-race people, announcing the support act. "Is julle gereed vir Larry?" (Are you ready for Larry?)

"And everyone went crazy," says Aron Turest-Swartz, Freshly Ground's founder, who has since left the band to start the music production company QCT in Cape Town.

"Everyone seemed to know him. He walked onstage, this tall thin man with a guitar. He started singing. Everyone was totally riveted. I was really blown away because I hadn't heard a voice like that before. I thought, 'I wonder whose songs those are?'"

When Larry Joe picked up his guitar, Turest-Swartz bent over to the mixed race inmate and whispered, "Who are you?"

"He said, 'My name's Larry. I'm an inmate here in Douglas prison and the government sometimes lets me out to play for the people.'"

Turest-Swartz started calling Larry Joe in prison, snatched conversations that never lasted long enough to satisfy his curiosity about the singer who had impressed guards and fellow inmates alike with his talent.

He visited him and listened to his story. He listened to some of the 40 songs Larry Joe had written in prison, and came up with the extraordinary idea of recording an album there.

He worked with Larry Joe all through the freezing winter in a prison cell recording studio. To improve acoustics, they piled mattresses against the wall.


When Larry Joe was 13, his parents moved to a small house in Douglas. It was 1991 and his father was unemployed. His mother, Caroline Rhoda, was struggling to make ends meet as a teacher.

When Larry Joe got home from school, there was no food. His sister would tell him that she had a headache for bread and cheese, but there was nothing to give her.

His friends were poor too. It seemed everyone was. He sneaked out of the house in the evening and hung with the guys on the corner, who always talked about stealing.

"After a while, it seems like a solution. I saw guys coming with expensive stuff, you know, and they were bragging. At first I keep my distance, but after a year and a half I started walking around with them."

When he got cash, he sneaked it into his mother's purse.

She was confused, half-suspicious, until she caught him red-handed moving a pile of stolen goods into the house, and begged him to stop. But he was addicted to Mandrax — quaaludes — by then and had to fund his habit.

At 17, he moved to Cape Town and fell in with a crowd of guys who drove fancy cars and wore gold jewelry and cool clothes. One day he watched in alarm when one of them pulled a gun and put it to the head of someone withdrawing money from an ATM, screaming at the person to draw the maximum amount.

"I was like, 'Yo! How did I find myself in this situation? This is a violent vibe,'" he remembered. "In the evening when I went home, they gave me 500 rands [$75]. I thought, 'This is easy money.'"

It wasn't so easy. The police were on to him, so he ran. For seven years, he was a fugitive, adopting so many personalities — sometimes tough, sometimes kind, sometimes outgoing, sometimes introverted — that he almost lost track of himself.

Finally, he returned to Douglas for his grandfather's funeral, playing a guitar by the coffin, noticing the dark looks people gave him: a man on the run. Afterward, his grandmother talked him into giving himself up.


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