The Musicambia song-writing workshop capped off its return to San Quentin (SQ) this August with an inspired performance on the Garden Chapel stage. The uplifting event marked another milestone towards a more normal program as the pandemic slowly subsides.
The eight songs performed were written and composed by the program’s 25 incarcerated participants with assistance from the three workshop teachers, all of whom are professional musicians.
Musicambia is a non-profit organization inspired by an initial collaboration between Carnegie Hall and New York’s Sing Sing prison. The Pacific Harmony Foundation, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the William James Association support its efforts, while SQ’s Arts in Corrections pitched in to help. Its name derives from the Spanish word for change — cambia — and refers to the power of music to spark positive transformation.
“Our goal is to showcase the talent behind bars,” said Musicambia’s Brad Balliet. “To re-humanize those who are incarcerated and to provide temporary relief from the dehumanization of America’s prisons. It’s an honor for us to be able to come in here and work with everybody.”
The songs performed on the chapel stage were developed from scratch over the course of three long days earlier in the week. This gave the participants time to bond over music, hone their skills, and escape the daily grind of prison life.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” said participant Brandon Genest, a guitarist and vocalist. “Music was an important part of my life for a long time, and being able to spend all day making music — for the first time since high school — was just unbelievable. I was able to forget I was in prison — whether I was playing, writing, or performing.”
The performance started with an upbeat song, “I Want It All,” written by SQ’s Dante D. Jones with Musicambia’s Judith Hill on vocals. The Grammy-award winning Hill was a finalist in a season four of The Voice, which was easy to see why when her first note rang out, mesmerizing everyone in room. The packed house rose to its feet with applause, including Warden Broomfield who attended.
Next up was “Power Chords,” with beautiful vocals by SQ’s Jocelyn Diggs — who might have a shot at The Voice someday — and rap lyrics rained down by SQ’s Nicholas “IBTruth” McDaniels, who was backed up by the deep tones of Balliet’s bassoon.
“I look at this like my opening break,” said McDaniels afterwards. “I was star struck at first, meeting Ms. Hill after seeing her on TV. Our group has a lot of diversity; we can learn something from everybody, from our strengths and our weaknesses, which inspired my lyrics.”
McDaniels said he looks forward to taking this experience to the streets and pursuing his dreams of rapping and making music. “If we can come together, as men and as women and find unity, then it shows the power of music,” he said.
An instrumental number called “A Piece of Heaven” featured a hauntingly beautiful duet between the SQ’s Raul Aguayo on acoustic guitar and the trio of violins played by SQ’s Daniel Le, Henok Rufael, and Musicambia-founder Nathan Schram, while Hill turned her voice into an instrument like a soulful songbird.
Speaking about his journey as an incarcerated musician, Rufael said, “I play this violin because an incarcerated person taught me six years ago, so let’s remember not to underestimate our abilities.” He said he had to overcome self-doubt to learn to play the violin, and that performing on stage requires the courage to be vulnerable.
Freedom and personal power were prominent themes that emerged from the workshop and the songs produced by participants.
In Genest’s song “Freedom,” he sang, “I find that my soul longs for freedom to express the way I feel.” SQ’s Jay Kim spun some rap lyrics about having, “Freedom to leave behind the mistakes that brought me here.”
During an interlude, participant Ronnell “Rouch” Draper mused, “Freedom showed up in a lot of different ways tonight. Not just the freedom of getting out of prison, but the freedom to be ourselves, the freedom to love and be loved, the freedom to express how we feel.”
The songs featured the standard vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, but also keyboard, the trio of violins, harmonica, and the wooden bassoon played by Balliet. Participants were welcomed even if they had no prior musical experience.
A companion workshop and performance was concurrently underway at Sing Sing, and those incarcerated musicians wrote notes of encouragement that were shared with residents of SQ.
“The power of music brings us all together like family,” one Sing Sing musician named “Hollywood” wrote. “The power of lyrical and melodic creativity transforms and connects us in our dreams, our suffering and our hopes.”
Another Sing Sing participant, Joseph, wrote, “A whole note may be broken up in many different ways. In the end, we all equal a whole note, no matter the distance of our sounds.”
During the performance, the song “How You Feel” included a funked-up electric guitar solo by Hill and catchy lyrics with memorable lines like, “I told you how I feel, now tell me how you feel,” and “I hope one day I’ll be saying goodnight instead of goodbye.”
Hill cut loose with the full power of her voice on the final song, “Power,” singing “Elevate, elevate, elevate my soul!” She got the crowd back to its feet with a call and response of “Who’s got the power?” It was a fitting end to a memorable performance.
“Everyone has been so incredible, the last three days a sense of community and unity has grown so much in this room,” Hill said. “Music has such a powerful ability to bring people together… in love and unity. When somebody shares what they’re going through in song form, it connects us all.”
Musicambia is scheduled to return to SQ in January for a longer workshop, and will be accepting applications later in the year.