'Instead of bringing misery into the world, I’m bringing joy' – ex prisoner credits Irish group Dervish with changing his life
In 1996 an English prisoner serving a decade long sentence for smuggling cocaine wrote a letter to the Irish folk band Dervish about his love of, and admiration for, their music. One of the founding members, Shane Mitchell, wrote back and sent a batch of the band’s CDs.
The delighted recipient, north Londoner Kevin Barry White, spent the next four years learning the tunes and teaching himself how to play the accordion. A tentative friendship blossomed between musician and prisoner and over the course of the next two decades Kevin turned his life around. He credits Dervish’s music with helping him to find a new focus and a new purpose in life both during, and after, his time in ‘her Majesty’s complex’.
Here they tell Independent.ie about that journey and the transformative power of music.
"I’m a 6 foot tall, flat-nosed, ex-cocaine smuggler”
Kevin is a Londoner through and through but as a child he spent time living in Dundrum, and started school in Ballally. His father, Barry White, had Irish ancestry and was a “hard-working, straight-as-a-die man” who loved to play the accordion. On his deathbed he encouraged the then wayward Kevin to find a new path in life with music.
“I’ve always done what I thought was right. But I’ve always had people along the way saying to me, ‘What the f*** are you doing? What are you playing at?’ because I was always on my own road," says Kevin. "If I make a decision I go for it. I’ve not had many friends over the years, I’ve got to be honest. I’ve always been a bit of a one-man band. But when my father said to me, ‘You need to change your life and music is the way to do it’ and he was dying, he was on his deathbed, I had no real choice. I had to do it.”
However, Kevin had a ten year prison sentence to serve. He took his father’s accordion with him and began teaching himself how to play. “I lost everything – my wife, family, house, everything went but the one thing that didn’t go was the accordion and music. It’s been by my side ever since.”
Kevin was particularly enraptured by the music of Dervish, which prompted a lengthy letter to the band outlining exactly what the music meant to him. Shane says it “nearly moved me to tears and I was very touched by it”. When Kevin subsequently received the collection of Dervish CDs in the post he was equally moved.
“It was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the moment he opens the golden ticket. All the band members had signed the CDs and written words like ‘freedom’ and ‘keep going’ and I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
“I was sitting in prison and somebody had taken the time to send these to me with a message. They didn’t know me and they must get thousands of letters but they took the time to send me all those CDs and I thought there’s a reason behind all of this. I’d say it was my father’s spirit knowing how much of a f***er I was and he knew he had to get something down in front of me to make me change!” he laughs.
"I thought, this is what I’m here for, this is my reason”
During his time in prison he continued to play the accordion and even organized a music class for the younger prisoners, lobbying groups for funding for musical instruments and eventually securing £10,000 from the Inside Out Trust. “We had the youngsters singing and rapping about their lives and I just thought, this is what I’m here for, this is my reason.”
“Once I went to prison I was left with nothing material, nothing from the outside, just myself. I discovered a creative side I never knew I had,” adds Kevin. “This is the thing I try to express to people – it doesn’t matter how dire life is, if you’re involved with drugs or whatever you do, we all have a creative side we can tap into and it can give us so much. It will always be there for you when you need it and people don’t realise that.”
A decade after he left prison, Kevin is still playing music. He also runs his own successful tree surgeon business, providing apprenticeships for youngsters who have been in trouble in an effort to give them a trade and a chance in life. “I’m out of prison 10 years now and I’ve had an amazing time. I’ve got an amazing partner, beautiful children, bought a house, have a business. Everything is fine. I’m really happy,” he says. He hopes now that his story might inspire other people who might be pursuing the path he was before his stint inside.
“If there’s a way of inspiring people, mentoring people, that would be for me. It’s giving something back,” he says. “Bear in mind I was full on in the drugs game. That’s what I was doing. I was bringing misery, but the total opposite of that is music. Music brings joy. It’s a big transformation – instead of bringing misery into the world, I’m bringing joy into the world.”
Shane in particular has been a “huge inspiration” for Kevin; “I just said to Shane, ‘you don’t even know what you did for me’. He transformed my way of thinking, along with a few other people, but that was the thing that did it. I’m a 6 foot tall, flat-nosed, ex-cocaine smuggler. You’d never believe how my life has changed.”
Kevin thanked Shane by designing a beautiful hand-made walnut accordion especially for him, which he had made with experts in Italy. The accordion has toured with Shane and features on Dervish’s current album, The Great Irish Songbook. The respect Kevin has for Shane is mutual - the latter describes meeting Kevin as “one of the best things that ever happened to me".
"Irish music touches people in a very deep and meaningful way”
“[Being in Dervish] has never been about doing the Glastonburys or the Rock in Rios or travelling on government jets or all the great things we’ve done in our careers. We have had a music career most musicians would die for but at the end of the day it’s the letters that you get from people,” says Shane.
“Irish music, we’ve always known, is very strong and it touches people in a very deep and meaningful way and that has been reflected over the past 30 years in the stories we’ve been told, some of them very difficult, about how music has had a positive effect on people’s lives. There were so many different people but for me one of the best things that has ever happened to me in my own life was receiving a letter 23 years ago from Kevin Barry White.”
He adds, “He completely inspired me, how positive his life was, how people can change their lives, how his own life had changed, and he went into great detail about his time in prison and some of it was very heavy and he had difficult times and his story just blew me away.
“I’m very proud of the band’s music, that Kevin was introduced to the band’s music, and that he learned to play in a prison. It’s fantastic. Everybody has difficulties in their lives in different ways and everybody has different things that help them overcome that and their own therapeutic tools and certainly music is definitely one and I’m very proud that I was a part of this whole thing.”
Dervish’s new album ‘The Great Irish Songbook’ is out now and features Dervish performing with over a dozen luminaries across an eclectic range of genres including Imelda May, Brendan Gleeson, Steve Earle, Andrea Corr, David Gray, Vince Gill, Rhiannon Giddens, Kate Rusby, Abigail Washburn and others.