Abolitionist Jazz: New album brings prisoner’s music to life 

“Tiyo’s Songs of Life” is a new album of bright jazz tunes that has its origins in a prison cell. These soulful songs were written by saxophonist Tiyo Attallah Salah-El while he served a life sentence without the possibility of parole. After almost 50 years of being incarcerated, Tiyo died in a Pennsylvania prison in 2018.

Tiyo Attallah Salah-El Papers and Lois Ahrens together, taken in 2007 inside SCI Dallas, Pennsylvania. (Contributed -- Lois Ahrens)
Tiyo Attallah Salah-El  and Lois Ahrens together, taken in 2007 inside SCI Dallas, Pennsylvania. (Contributed — Lois Ahrens)
Tiyo Attallah Salah-El Papers. (Contributed)
Tiyo Attallah Salah-El. (Contributed)

Lois Ahrens, founder of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, sent Tiyo 50 blank sheets of music paper in 2005, which he filled within a few months. Only recently were Tiyo’s songs arranged and recorded for the first time by Brazilian-born saxophonist Felipe Salles, whose own compositions touch on social-political themes like his 2020 multi-media work The New Immigration Experience. Salles is Professor of Jazz and African-American Music Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Tiyo’s Songs of Life” features Felipe Salles on saxophone with pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Jonathan Barber. Salles told The Sentinel, “Tiyo never let his horrible situation crush his soul. Despite everything, his music shows a deep love for people.” Tiyo not only composed dozens of songs in prison, he also earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and founded the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons.

“Music is a way to reach out to people, emotionally,” Salles said. “Sometimes when you put a real face to the issue, it helps people connect and have empathy. And this music hopefully attracts them to know more about prisons and abolition.” The Sentinel recently spoke with Lois Ahrens about “Tiyo’s Songs of Life” and prison abolition.

Abolition of prisons

Q: “Tiyo composed these tunes in prison while serving a life sentence. Tell me about Tiyo.”

A: “He was an amazing guy. He was a musician and a prison abolitionist before most people had heard that word. He started the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons in the late or mid ’90s. Now there’s a lot of people talking about prison abolition. I remember when I first started the Real Cost of Prisons Project in 2000, that word wasn’t even used. He was always ahead of his time, really. It’s amazing to be ahead of your time if you’re locked in a cage. That’s what he always called it; locked in a cage,” Ahrens recalls.

“He had this vast network of people built around writing letters. There are thousands of his letters collected at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Tiyo corresponded with this wide range of people including Howard Zinn. They became friends and Zinn introduced Tiyo to his Hollywood agent, Paul Allen Smith, who published this book called Pen Pal, of letters that Tiyo wrote to him. For somebody who spent 50 years in prison, his life was incredibly expansive. I sent Tiyo fifty sheets of paper and I got back 50 songs.”

Q: “Tell me about the prison conditions Tiyo lived in.”

A: “He was a Black man in a prison filled with Black men. The prison was 100% run by white prison guards and white wardens. The prison is called Dallas, though it’s in Pennsylvania. It’s like going into the deep south,” Ahrens explained. “Despite living in that environment, he was able to have this extraordinary life. This wasn’t just his survival; he refused to be buried by them. He refused to be crushed by them, which is what they want. And sometimes they succeed.”

Q: “How did Tiyo end up incarcerated?”

A: “My understanding was that he was involved in small-time drug trade and was leading kind of an unsavory life. He ended up having an encounter with somebody and he had a gun and he killed this person. Taking somebody’s life is hugely serious,” Ahrens pauses. “And I believe that people are better than the worst thing they ever did. I think that about myself and about people I know who have killed someone. There are also people serving life without parole for completely insane drug laws. But people that are serving life because they’ve killed somebody, they did this thirty or fifty years ago when they couldn’t see clearly because of the chaos of their lives. I tried to get his sentence commuted as he got older. He died when he was 85. He had a heart attack and diabetes and things that especially people in prison have.”

Exacerbating the cruelty

Q: “It’s more likely if you’re Black in this country that you’ll end up in prison. Prisons are now profit-making ventures and the premise is that if people have caused suffering, they should be made to suffer. Tell me why you want to abolish prisons.”

A: “I advocate abolition for some of the same reasons you’re saying. Just look at the violence of prisoners, but more often the violence of guards towards prisoners, and the kind of dehumanization and trauma that goes on. Hearing what people have to deal with day to day is overwhelming. Degradation, control and surveillance, being counted constantly, strip-searched and having your cell torn up constantly, your mail tampered with and visitors treated like garbage.” Ahrens summarized. “The prison system doesn’t actually help people who need help. It’s clear to me the system has nothing to do with rehabilitation. In California you even have an “R” at the end for Rehabilitation. (CDCR-California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) I remember when they added that “R” (2004) and I thought, ‘They probably spent more money changing the website and stationery than they actually did on rehabilitation.’ The system expects people to change when everything about it is based on exacerbating the cruelty of people’s lives.”

Defund and abolish

Q: “After George Floyd was murdered, the Black Lives Matter movement was huge, with many calling to defund or abolish police and prisons. This seems to have declined. Where’s the defund/abolition movement presently?”

A: “It’s less present than it was. The media and organized reactionary forces have succeeded in making it less present. Police unions, DAs, action committees and the Koch brothers have invested in maintaining things the way they are by putting out messages to undermine what happened with the organizing and response to George Floyd’s murder. It’s been a concerted campaign,” Ahrens told the Sentinel. “Look at Chesa Boudin. As soon as he got elected (San Francisco District Attorney) there was organizing to recall him. This was telling other progressive DAs that started running; “Look what happened to Chesa Boudin. Watch out, it could happen to you.” Many different elements have been conspiring, I would say, because it is a conspiracy to undermine this moment in time that we had. Also, the bad economy, the war in Ukraine and COVID have drawn a lot of energy away from the Black Lives Matter and abolition movement.”

“In the town where I live, Northampton, Massachusetts, I was on the Policing Review Commission,” recalls Ahrens. “A lot of people could not understand what we were saying; let’s take a small portion of the police budget and invest in non-policing alternatives. Most of what police do here doesn’t have anything to do with policing. It has to do with mental health crises, overdoses and domestic violence. And the pushback was so intense. People’s love and belief in the police is really shocking! It’s going to take a really long time to undo that and invest in other systems that are non-policing alternatives. Twenty or 30 years ago abolition was not being talked about. So, this is progress. But to move from conversation to the reality is a much, much deeper climb. Because all these forces are working against it.”

Abolition

Q: “What are some strategies for abolishing prisons and police?”

A: “To abolish prisons, it’s not just about changing policing, which of course needs to happen. The court system also needs to be changed because poor people get the worst representation. Ninety-eight percent of cases are plea bargained and the unrestricted power of DAs needs to be changed. For prisons to be abolished, we need to completely turn investment towards good health care, schools and housing. What is it about those things? Well, they prevent crime! Abolishing prisons, in a way, would be the end result. Because there would be fewer reasons for crime, thus fewer reasons to be locking people up,” says Ahrens. “A culture that was less violent, more humane, where people had more access to decent food and all the things that we know are real crime prevention. There’s not any investment in that. Instead, there’s investment in courts, DAs, police, jails and prison. That’s where the money is and that’s where the money goes. To me, abolition is a continuous process.”

Kafkaesque weird prison thing

Q: “One of the tunes on ‘Tiyo’s Songs of Life’ is dedicated to Howard Zinn.”

A: “Howard and Tiyo were friends until Howard died. Howard was a really fantastic friend to Tiyo, in terms of all his writing. Anytime he would go on vacation, he’d be sending Tiyo postcards. He sent him money, every month, for all of those years. I knew this from Tiyo. And after Howard died, his agent Pablo took over. Howard and his brother, who ran a printing company, published Tiyo’s autobiography. And prison’s being bizarre the way they are, Tiyo could never get a copy of his own autobiography! They felt it was a threat to prison security. Here was the actual living person and he couldn’t possess his own autobiography because they said it was a threat to the security of that prison!” Ahrens adds, “Just one of these Kafkaesque weird prison things.”

Fifth sax player

Q: “You were trying to find musicians to record Tiyo’s music for 17 years.”

A: “I called Felipe (Salles) completely out of the blue. He was the fifth sax player I contacted. My hope was to find a sax player to play me the songs, period. Not make a CD or have a concert. So, it’s been remarkable how it’s happened,” Ahrens remarked. “The day the recording happened, Felipe said to me, “We should have a concert.” The venue for the June 11 CD release concert is now in part of Northampton, but used to be a separate town called Florence, Massachusetts. It was the home of anti-slavery abolitionists. Sojourner Truth lived there. David Ruggles and Lydia Maria Child came there. It was a utopian abolition community and all these abolitionists lived there. They had beet farms so people wouldn’t buy sugar from slave farms. They tried to grow silk so people wouldn’t buy cotton. They imported trees and the silkworms produce these little pupae called bombyx mori. The place we had the concert is a slavery abolitionist church now called Bombyx. As prison abolitionists, having Tiyo’s concert there was perfect. The album has turned out to be this amazing thing.”

Listen to this interview with Lois Ahrens at noon Thursday on “Transformation Highway” with John Malkin on KZSC 88.1 FM / kzsc.org. 

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