Music Gives Inmates at New York’s Sing Sing Prison a New Start

Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison about an hour north of New York City, holds some 1,600 inmates; but, even as the men serve their sentences, prison officials are thinking about — and planning for — the day those inmates will be released.

The deputy superintendent for program services, Leslie Malin, says the prison offers technical workshops and academic courses. “We have an associate’s degree program, a bachelor’s degree program, a master’s degree program.”  

And it has a music program, in cooperation with the famed Carnegie Hall concert venue.

Making musical connections

Twice a month, artists from New York City travel to Sing Sing and spend a day giving the 30 inmates enrolled in the Musical Connections program formal training. Before it started nine years ago, Sing Sing had a music room.

But one former inmate, identified only as Rob, says there were often fights over who could use it. The Department of Corrections asked that we not use any last names or say what brought these men to prison.

“Where we had fragmented fighting groups, now all these guys are part of this weird cohesive thing, where we have to play together and we’re, all of a sudden, we’re doing the instant duet, me and somebody who hates me. But we’re communicating musically.” Rob paused and asked, rhetorically, “How long can we go on hating each other when we’re helping each other with the score or sharing a piece of music and we’re all kind of struggling to keep up, you know, with everybody else?”

Rob has been on parole for the last year-and-a-half, after spending seven years in Sing Sing. He played just two open mics before he went to prison.

Joe had even less experience.

“I didn’t know what an A flat was,” he acknowledged. “I’ve heard these terms. I couldn’t have explained them to you. I didn’t know what they sounded like. I didn’t know what they meant.”  

But after four years in the program — studying music theory and harmony — Joe is writing an opera. He became interested in classical music after working with opera star Joyce DiDonato.

“She definitely opened my eyes to something that I didn’t even know I had within myself,” he said.

Scaling up skills

Kenyatta, who has been incarcerated for 23 years, calls the program “the most transformative thing I’ve ever experienced.” Kenyatta has earned a master’s degree in divinity and given a TED talk from Sing Sing. He has been a part of the music program since it started and says the craft has helped him open up to others.

“Then I can be a little less alone, because I know you understand some part of me, at least, and you can be a little less alone because you know that I understand some part of you,” he said. “And this really has been pivotal in helping me.”  

Listen to Kenyatta introduce and sing his composition ‘Holding Out Hope’

The Musical Connections program is run by Carnegie Hall’s Manuel Bagorro, who oversees similar programs in shelters and community centers.

“People have come together; they play together. They negotiate artistic decisions,” he said. “They sort out problems, but all with enormous affection for music.”

And those are all skills that inmates can use on the outside. Danny was released from Sing Sing three-and-a-half years ago, after seven years in the prison system. He learned to play the violin in the Musical Connections program and started writing music.

“After being released from prison, I was able to take that same drive and the same dedication that it takes to learn a musical instrument and to compose, into other areas of my life,” he said.  

Take a behind the scenes look at music at Sing Sing

One of the teaching artists, Sarah Elizabeth Charles, says she has seen both personal and musical growth in the prisoners over the years.

“I just think the sky’s the limit for so many of the men in this workshop. They’re professional. They’re working. Many of them are working on the level of a professional musician. And that’s really huge. Yes. Sky’s the limit,” she added with a laugh.

Music lessons

For the members of the workshop who have been released from Sing Sing, Carnegie Hall hosts a monthly gathering. Rob says the men in the alumni group don’t just play music when they get together – they talk about what’s going on in their lives.

“It showed me that everybody was struggling trying to find a job, trying to stay employed, trying to find time to practice in this hectic life,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t alone in any of those things.”

And like other members of the Musical Connections program who are out of prison, Rob has been getting his life together – he’s working as a bike messenger, is now married and plays various musical gigs around town.

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Tribeca to Hold ‘Schindler’s List,’ ‘Scarface’ Reunions

The 25th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and the 35th anniversary of Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” will be celebrated with reunion screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival.


The New York festival announced Monday that Spielberg will join Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz for a post-screening conversation April 26 at the Beacon Theatre. The “Scarface” event will reunite De Palma, Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer on April 19 at the Beacon Theatre.


The festival will also host an anniversary screening of 1992’s “In the Soup,” an acclaimed independent film directed by Alexandre Rockwell. The largely forgotten release, starring Steve Buscemi and Seymour Cassel, has been restored following a Kickstarter campaign to repair the remaining, damaged print.


Also slated for on-stage interviews at Tribeca are Bradley Cooper, Jamie Foxx, Spike Lee and Alec Baldwin.


The festival runs April 18-29.

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Marvel’s Muslim Teen Girl Superhero Challenges Stereotypes

Alongside Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow and the other superheroes of the Marvel Universe is Ms. Marvel… a shape-shifting teen-aged crusader for today’s diverse American society.

She may be a newbie in the world of Marvel superheros, but since she burst onto the comic book scene in February of 2014, Ms. Marvel has become a cultural phenomenon. She’s also the first Muslim superhero to have her own dedicated series.

“I love this comic because it is diverse, and it shows a side of America that I think comics don’t always show,” said DeeDee, a Ms. Marvel fan we met at a Huntington, New York comic book shop.

“She’s not only dealing with school sides of things, like the culture clashes, her parents want her to be more traditional,” said Lois Alison Young, a school teacher who is also a Ms. Marvel fan. “I guess it’s a big cliché but she’s really struggling because she wants to maintain her Muslim identity.”

Ms Marvel is a Pakistani-American teenager from Jersey City named Kamala Khan. Her creator, G. Willow Wilson, is also Muslim.

“She faces a lot of challenges that any teenager faces about family, school, peer pressure, what she wants to do with her life,” Wilson said. “So the real goal is to make the book feel real. How can any reader from any background see themselves in this Muslim girl in the Marvel universe.”

Comic store owner and Orthodox Jew Menachem Luchins welcomed Ms. Marvel fans to meet the author, and says he can relate to Kamala.

“There’s a scene where Kamala goes to the mosque and she’s talking about the responsibilities she has towards people, so it’s vaguely implying that she might be a superhero, but she doesn’t want to tell the imams,” said Luchins. “I have those hypothetical conversations with rabbis in my head. ‘If I got superpowers, would I be allowed on the Sabbath to break Sabbath law to use my superpowers?’ These are the things that I thought of, so Ms Marvel connects with me immensely.”

Kamala Khan’s home town, Jersey City, is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

“The point of a superhero is to be a symbol for the culture at that time,” Wilson said.

Kamala Khan’s fictional school is based on the real McNair Academic High School.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Mohammad Mirza, a student at McNair Academic High School. “She’s basically the superhero of our school. I think the comic book represents the diversity we have at our school.”

“For many people, this character is their only exposure to Jersey City, their only exposure to Islam, to depictions of Muslim people that defies the traditional Hollywood idea of Islamophobic representations,” said Holly Smith, a teacher at the school. “So it’s just interesting to see, especially in this political climate, how this character has really become such a symbol.”

In 2015, the first Ms. Marvel graphic novel won the Hugo award, the highest prize in fantasy and science-fiction literature, for the best graphic story.

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German Band Works in Concert With "Robotic" Instruments to Create Music Mix

German band Joasihno strikes a chord in a unique way as it takes its show on the road.

Currently touring in Canada, the two-man band works in concert with a “robotic” element that can play several instruments at the same time.

“Actually we call it psychedelic robot orchestra,” said Cico Beck, one of the creators of the band. “It’s a combination of acoustic instruments but also very trashy robot instruments,” he added.

Once hooked up to wires and set up, instruments that include a xylophone, drum and cymbal play on their own. Another contraption, a horizontal, self-revolving wooden stick, stands atop a microphone stand. The stick contains long strings tied on each end with a wooden ping pong-sized-ball attached. As the stick rotates, the balls hit a block on the floor, creating a hollow knocking sound. 

Beck said a computer is at the heart of the self-playing instruments.

“Most of this stuff is controlled by the computer. The computer can translate voltage signals, so the robots are controlled by the voltage, that is controlled by the computer,” Beck said. 

Playing in an experimental band with a robot orchestra is not the same as playing in a traditional one, said Nico Siereg, the other Joasihno member.

WATCH: Robotic orchestra

​”It’s a little bit different because you also have in mind that there are machines playing with you, so there’s no reaction from them.” 

Siereg said in some ways, once the robots are programmed, he is free to focus on what he is playing and even improvise. The musician said he can envision future scenarios in which technology plays a greater role in creating different types of music; but, he voiced hope that “real music won’t die.”

Even if the robots are not taking over the music world, Beck said it is undeniable that in the 21st century, music and technology are intertwined.

“Technology is like a very important tool that even, very often, it’s also a very important part of inspiration,” he added.

Joasihno performed several shows at the now-concluded music festival and tech conference known as South by Southwest, held in Austin, Texas. The experimental band is hoping its high-tech use of instrumentals will be music to one’s ears.

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Paralympic Chief Closes Pyeongchang Winter Games

International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Andrew Parsons on Sunday declared the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics closed, and paid tribute to late British physicist Stephen Hawking as an “inspiration.”

At a spectacular ceremony that featured dancing, music and light shows, the curtain was officially brought down on nine days of sporting action.

“The time has come for me to declare the Pyeongchang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games closed,” Parsons said.

Hawking, who died last week aged 76, is fondly remembered by Paralympians as he opened the 2012 London Paralympics.

Parsons paid tribute to the scientist as “a genius of a man, a pioneer and inspiration to us all.”

“While Hawking tested the limits of his imagination, Paralympians, you have once again pushed the boundaries of human endeavor,” he told the audience.

Towards the end of the ceremony, the Paralympic flag was handed over to the mayor of Beijing — which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

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Oscars President Accused of Sexual Harassment, Faces Inquiry

The president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that hands out the Oscars, is being investigated over allegations of sexual harassment.

The Academy is reported to have received three complaints against John Bailey Wednesday.

The Academy issued a statement Friday saying it “treats any complaints confidentially to protect all parties.” The statement said there would be no further comments “until the full review is completed.”

Bailey, who is 75, became Academy president in August. He is a veteran cinematographer whose films include The Big Chill and Groundhog Day.

The Academy and the movie industry have been rocked by the recent revelations of what appears to be widespread sexual harassment in the industry. The #MeToo and the Time’s Up movements have brought global attention to the matter.

Powerful movie producer Harvey Weinstein was expelled from the Academy, following detailed media reports about his inappropriate sexual behavior with actresses and female staff members.

In December, the Academy adopted a code of conduct for its members.

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Indian Singer Convicted of Trafficking Job Seekers to America

A popular Indian pop singer has been convicted of human trafficking and cheating after a court found he pretended people were in his performance troupe so they could get jobs in North America.

Daler Mehndi says he is innocent. He was sentenced to two years in prison but was freed on bail Friday to appeal his conviction.

Prosecutors say Mehndi and his brother took “passage money” from Indians they offered to disguise as performers in his troupe. The job seekers could then stay in the United States and Canada to find work.

The cheating conviction alleges the brothers took money from some Indians and never took them abroad.

Mehndi shot into fame in the 1990s with Punjabi-language songs and energetic dancing. He also lent his voice for Bollywood film songs.

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