At sporting events at The Q, one pregame ritual stands out: the man who plays the Star Spangled Banner — on his violin. That man is San Quentin’s Henok Rufael.
He frequents the Lower Yard, violin case on his back; its hand-painted letters read, “Violins Not Violence.”
Some musicians bring their musical skills to prison. For others, like Rufael, prison provides an opportunity to realize long-simmering musical ambitions.
“I started because I saw a guy on the yard playing violin and it just drew me in. I always appreciated their sound,” said Rufael, who was at Valley State Prison when he picked up the instrument in 2017.
The son of Eritrean immigrants, Rufael said that as he grew up, his family had a polarized relationship with music.
On one hand, his parents believed music was strictly for fun — success in life came from respectable careers like being a doctor or lawyer.
On the other hand, music was his baby-sitter growing up. His parents gave him a radio and told him to “stay busy.” Moreover, his mom seemed to take the fun of music seriously — she had crates full of vinyl records, everything from Kool and the Gang to Michael Jackson to Keith Sweat.
“I fell in love with … music [and] its ability to transform the depressing loneliness of my childhood into a feeling of, ‘Man, I can do anything,’” Rufael said. He added that songs with strings really stood out to him because they evoke emotion.
When he first started playing at Valley State, the man he had seen playing on the yard said he would teach Rufael if he would buy a violin. Rufael realized it was an opportunity to put his time in prison to productive use.
The only problem — he could not afford to buy one.
He told his family he would forgo canteen if they could somehow pull together the money. In the end, it was his estranged cousin — who had been disappointed about Rufael’s incarceration — that purchased the violin. Before he had played a note, the violin had brought his cousin back into his life.
An agonizing wait ensued: the instrument took more than six months to arrive. When it finally arrived, “It was surreal and breathtaking to see it for the first time — so delicate and small, yet capable of tremendous power.”
With the violin in hand, Rufael practiced “aggressively,” three hours per day. “Your age does not define your destination. I started playing five years ago at 38, and people think I’ve been playing since I was young,” he said.
He encourages people who are learning or want to learn not to “overcomplicate it,” recalling that his teacher told him the secret is regular practice.
“Thirty minutes a day is a great place to start,” he said. “As you continue, you will see the growth and will be encouraged within yourself to do more. What happens — the peace, the rewiring of your brain — is profound. Your mood will change. There are a lot of huge positive effects.”
“Playing music helps me to feel peace through the meditative state that I get into … I get taken away to another place,” Rufael said. “It helps me maintain my discipline and balance in life. I have to pay attention to the details.”
Rufael and his fellow violinists at San Quentin — whom he calls “VIPs, violinists in prison” — are prominent regulars at the prison’s musical performances.
“The enriching relationships that I get, whether through performances or somebody walking by on the yard and hearing me and then sharing stories about their families playing violin, it creates friendships and a moment of connection. That to me is invaluable,” Rufael said.
He supports music therapy and music as a rehabilitation tool.
“There is so much science behind it … it helps me navigate my traumas or cope when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Playing my violin is extremely therapeutic,” he said.
Rufael has been advocating adding karaoke to the recreational equipment in the SQ gym. “It’s a humanizing event when everyone can sing together,” he said, adding that it would be awesome for staff to join in, too.
When Rufael gets out of prison, he would like to volunteer his musical talent to those in need.
“I would really like to work with veterans. To play for them in some of these homes would be amazing; senior citizens’ homes, too. I understand loneliness from growing up. To play for folks that don’t get a lot of family interactions would be cool.”