This week’s spotlight: all things prison.
Slavic Soul Party! is a nine-piece New York City brass band dedicated to the Balkan brass tradition and its incorporation with American music. Formed over ten years ago by drummer and bandleader Matt Moran, the group plays upwards of 100 times a year in venues throughout the world.
In 2009, SSP! started performing in a much different space than nightclubs and concert halls: Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York—a maximum security prison.
About five years ago, a friend of Matt’s who worked at Carnegie Hall told him about a new program the venue’s Education & Community arm was initiating, called Musical Connections. The program would seek to “bring musical inspiration to people living with challenging circumstances,” and was recruiting musicians to play in places like hospitals, homeless shelters, senior centers, and correctional facilities.
Matt applied right away. For him, it was a no-brainer. “We wanted to be part of the program because as a brass band we’re always looking for situations where the fourth wall gets broken down. That’s what we’re about: street music, life music—not the separation of art and life.”
“When we auditioned, the Carnegie people asked us a lot of questions about ‘building community.’ I said, ‘We know about building community—building community means showing up. We’ve been playing at the same club in Brooklyn every Tuesday for ten years; we’ll come and play at the funeral when someone in our musical circles dies… That’s community: Be who you are, be honest, show up.’ “
They got the contract.
When they were accepted, the band was asked what type of place they wanted to perform in. They said prisons.
Matt explains: “For one, we’d never played in a prison. Two, of all the non-traditional venues Carnegie was serving, prisons were the one we as a band had the closest connections to, via personal experience or family members. And three, there is the undeniable cache of ‘cool’ about it—think of the history of music in prisons!”
SSP! was given their first gig at Sing Sing in the fall of 2009. Matt tells the story:
We were nervous as hell. We really didn’t know if what we were doing was going to be appreciated. We went through a tremendous security detail—they searched us personally, our instruments, our equipment… Then we were led to a room where we were suddenly turned over to a group of inmates. It was like, “What?! After all this security, we’re just let loose with these guys? Are we safe around these people?”
It turned out that the entire performance setup had been given as a task to a group of inmates—a handful of “good behavior” guys, who were also musicians, but no one had prepared us for that. We weren’t even sure what we were allowed to do—could we shake hands with them? There had been zero rules of engagement set.
Looking back, I realize that initially, their presence—because they were inmates—made us very uncomfortable, but that then they themselves—because they were so welcoming—soon made us very comfortable.
So we got on stage in the Sing Sing auditorium. The room filled up; over 400 people came. We got up and played hard; we didn’t want to leave any doubt that we were a really good band. They might not like it, but we wanted them to know that we were for real. It’s safe to say we all got goosebumps in that first concert.
The inmates are not allowed to stand; they have to remain seated. The fact that they’re in prison is always evident. They’re on total guard, personally, at all times. They’re always watching—everything.
But they still let it out, man! We have never played for an audience that’s yelled for so long between tunes; they even started chanting our names. When we were done and filing out, we continued playing in the hallways, which apparently you could hear in many places throughout the prison. We heard later from the Carnegie people, who had heard from the prison staff, that that little touch of empathy, that touch of rebellion expressed from us to them, made a big impression.
We went back to perform the next fall and the next—we’re currently in our fifth year—and in between we’ve been going back to teach some of the guys music and trade scores with them. Now when our band plays there, some of them get on stage and play with us. The community that’s been established there through Carnegie is incredible.
And the inmates’ own music group that they’ve formed together—they call themselves the Unofficial House Band—has codified into a real society within the prison. You can see they give each other tremendous support, and it’s given them peace, because it’s bringing music to everyone. Being part of that group offers a very real kind of protection: yes, emotional support and education, but also it increases their value in the prison, so they don’t have to worry as much about being threatened or shivved. That’s what inmates tell me.
For anyone who’s interested in working with an incarcerated community, Matt says, “There are a lot of volunteer programs out there. It’s a bigger commitment than a lot of other volunteer work, that’s true. But it’s not that hard. Just go out and do it!”
He also offers these insights:
Dealing with the bureaucracy
“The paperwork load in advance of this gig was tremendous,” he says. “The Carnegie application process, background checks, researching to see if we had gang affiliations, security at the prison… Plus when you’re there, there are all these rules, like you can’t take photos, you can’t record any music situation where anyone’s full name might be said… But the experience has been so meaningful that I quickly got over the tedium of the logistical mazes.”
Rolling with the unexpected
Though the red tape Slavic Soul Party! has encountered has been extensive, they haven’t always been informed about what would or could actually happen. All that preliminary work and still they had no idea they’d be left alone in a room with a group of inmates minutes after their initial arrival? Or how about the time their performance was delayed because there’d been a slashing in the cafeteria?
“Yeah, it’s a tight system, but it’s still a volatile place,” Matt says. “Prisons are not the best places to work, as you can imagine. You have to realize that it’s potentially not going to be a Mr. Rogers experience all the time, and try to be okay with that.”
Relating to the inmates
“Almost everyone I’ve met at Sing Sing has seemed to me to be a serious, kind, compassionate person,” Matt says. “It’s hard to see people you’ve come to care about live their lives in there. You want to help them find ways to be happy and find peace.”
“No one talks to us about why they’re at Sing Sing. When our band is there, we’re all focused on getting into the music, because music helps you transcend adversity. It’s very clear that we all know that, and that everyone in the room is using music for that in their own way. So in that space and time, we’re all equals.”
Do you have experience working with incarcerated communities? Share your story in the comments.