Men's prison choir competes in World Choir Games - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Men's prison choir competes in World Choir Games

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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) -

Competition in the World Choir Games started a day early Tuesday as a men's prison choir performed for judges at the Warren Correctional Institution in Lebanon.

The prison choir is called Umoja, which means 'unity' in Swahili.

World Choir Games officials established a special discretionary gospel and spiritual category for Umoja.

Convicted burglar Tyrone Smiley says being allowed to compete in the World Choir Games is amazing.

"I couldn't believe they gave us the opportunity to present ourselves and show the world what we love to do and we do it well I believe," said Smiley.

World Choir judge Johan Rooze from the Netherlands says he was impressed.

"It was marvelous. We didn't know what to expect, but it was much better than I expected," he said.

Umoja got a standing ovation from the small audience allowed inside the prison.

Tyrone Smiley say the choir gives him a sense of belonging to something positive.

"It gives us an outlet so that we have a purpose so that we stay out of trouble and out of the things that go on in here. It gives us a purpose of more than ourselves," he said.

Shawn Gray is a convicted robber who says brings out the best in him.

"It gives you hope, you know. It brings something within you that you never knew was there...and then as we come together...it just comes out so strongly amongst each other," said Gray. 

Choir Judge Johan Rooze says the members of Umoja have real talent.

"I've heard choirs much less....even at the choir games," said Rooze. 

Choir director Catherine Roma of Wilmington college says the experience is life changing.

"There's all sorts of transformation that can happen...in the spirit and also when you go for a goal it's another teamwork kind of idea and there's not necessarily a lot of teamwork in prison," said Roma. 

Umoja was formed in 1993, but Roma says the future of this prison choir is in doubt because of cuts in state funding.

"The governor and the Ohio department of rehabilitation and corrections will discontinue post GED educational programs in nine prisons," said Roma. 

Umoja has recorded three CD's, the proceeds of which are going to charity.

Copyright 2012 WXIX. All rights reserved.

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