Workshop turns incarcerated people into San Quentin ‘house band’ in 72 hours

Prisoners Henok Rufael and Daniel Le play the violin during Musicambia at San Quentin State Prison. Musicambia is a New York group that brings music to prisons by hosting multi-day workshops that teach composition and songwriting. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

How long would it take a collection of amateur musicians, working in new collaborative partnerships, to create an hour of original material from scratch? And does it change the equation if the artists in question are all incarcerated?

It turns out that the answer is only three days, given the circumstances.

That was the lesson of an initiative staged earlier this week in San Quentin, thanks to a collaboration between the William James Association’s Prison Arts Project in Santa Cruz and the New York-based organization Musicambia.

Musicambia founder Nathan Schram introduces audience members before a concert at San Quentin State Prison on August 10. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

On Monday morning, a group of 30 incarcerated people came together for the first time to brainstorm lyrics and music on the theme of power – what it means to them and how it resonates with life in prison. On Wednesday evening, the participants, joined by three professional musicians who had served as teachers for the project, were set to perform a set of eight original songs before an audience of around 100 of their associates.

“There are no guarantees in life, it takes a while to get it right,” read the lyrics to the opening number, titled “I Want It All,” a sweet gospel-tinged folk-rock number. . “But I try …”

Jay Kim raps during Musicambia’s concert at San Quentin State Prison. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Workshop participants varied widely in terms of age, length of time in prison, and musical experience. Some were young and fresh, with no more than a few months in the penal system. Others were in the midst of decades-long sentences. Their crimes ranged from burglary to murder. But all have found sustenance in the opportunity to express themselves through music.

“There’s a lot of negativity, a lot of limitation sometimes,” 27-year-old Jay Kim, whose smooth rapping graced the middle of one of rock’s numbers, told The Chronicle. “So to be here and to have people who are willing to engage with you — especially in something as universal and communal as music — is a powerful thing. It’s one of the best days which I have had for a long time.”

Inmates Daniel Francis (left) and Timmy Estrada enjoy each other’s company during a Musicambia workshop. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

That feeling of being listened to and valued is a key part of the experience, said violist Nathan Schram, who founded Musicambia in 2013 to provide musical workshops in American prisons, such as Sing Sing in northern America. New York State.

“A big part of our job is to empower people to redefine themselves as musicians,” he said. “Because when someone is incarcerated, you’re often defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

Among this week’s participants, some had deep roots in the musical world and others who had come to it more recently. Amos Carter, 61, said he had been playing the piano since he was 9, a track record that was evident in his occasional mastery of the instrument. Timmy Estrada, 48, said he learned to play the harmonica during his religious conversion in order to participate in prison church services.

For the concert on Wednesday, August 10, the three teachers – Schram, bassoonist Brad Balliett and Grammy-winning singer and multi-instrumentalist Judith Hill, who appeared on season four of “The Voice” – played a key role. in the procedure. But there was a community spirit throughout the performance, a spirit that allowed every musician to contribute.

Inmates Henok Rufael and Daniel Le join Nathan Schram and Brad Balliett of Musicambia to perform during the Musicambia concert. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

These workshops (another is planned for January) often unfold organically, Schram said, taking shape around participants’ interests and abilities.

“Usually within the first few hours you realize there’s enough musical language to create a kind of house band,” he said. “There’s always a drummer, there’s a billion guitarists, and there’s a lot of lyricists and poets.”

At San Quentin this week, the house band included a string section adding a nice touch of sweetness to several of the selections. In addition to Schram, the section included violinists Daniel Le, 31, and Henok Rufael, 43, who both honed their musical skills in the prison system.

Rufael, who said he practices three hours a day, was taught by an incarcerated man at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Madera County.

“I was walking through the yard one day and saw this guy playing the violin in prison,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ It was the most beautiful sound, and he was willing to teach me, so I started at 38.

Nathan Schram of Musicambia teaches inmates Amos Carter and Daniel Francis to play the violin. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Wednesday’s concert touched on all sorts of stylistic grounds. There was a tender instrumental number, with Le taking the lead on his violin. Brandon Genest, 32, an experienced electric guitarist, sang the rock anthem “Freedom,” which he co-wrote with two other workshop attendees.

The event ended with Hill leading an energetic call-and-response for the closer funky, “Power.”

Timmy Estrada (standing left) and Nicholas McDaniels (standing right) join other inmates in applause during the Musicambia concert at San Quentin State Prison on Wednesday, August 10. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Balliett has been teaching music in prison for 10 years, through a variety of programs. For him, it is a way of ensuring that incarcerated populations have access to the places of creation that everyone deserves.

“There are so many talented people here that the world doesn’t know about,” he said. “And for a lot of people, it’s not seen as a space for rehabilitation – it’s purely punishment.

“I think that exactly sets things back. If we want to help people rehabilitate, then part of that is the central human experience that everyone is entitled to, creativity and self-expression.

And to do it within 72 hours.

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