Decoda at Lee Correctional Institution, SC - April 2015

An account from Decoda Project Leader, cellist, Claire Bryant

Before reading on, please check out this column in WaPo: 

'With a Song in Prisoners' Hearts' - Washington Post column by Kathleen Parker

Eight members of Decoda had the fortune and honor to present a week-long workshop at South Carolina's largest maximum security prison, Lee Correctional Institution (LCI), earlier this month.  This was Decoda's second project in the past year at the prison, and the result was transformative and life changing for all involved.  Over six days, thirty participants from BLIC (Better Living Incentive Community, a character-based dorm by application) and the eight artists of Decoda, Owen Dalby, Anna Elashvili, Meena Bhasin, Nathan Schram, Caitlin Sullivan, Kris Saebo, Brad Balliett, and myself, became BLICODA, one bond, one heart, one band.  The result were nineteen original songs written and performed, and every single one of them was powerful. The anthem of the week became this song, "Look at Me Now".  The chorus goes: Look at me now/ I’m not who I once was/ The trials in my life/ Have come to make me strong/ So look at me now.

Hear it here: 


I was raised in Camden, South Carolina, about 25 miles down the road from Bishopville.  Growing up, I had no idea there was a maximum security prison in close proximity.  To be honest, I never once thought about incarcerated people.  But to be really honest, I believed in the stigma that society fed me: 'incarcerated people are all bad people', 'they are all criminals who aren't capable of change', and 'we should lock them up and throw away the key'.  Now, with immense perspective and real-life experience in several correctional facilities, I feel dirty and ugly that I ever thought those things.  It's upsetting that this is the way our society thinks about the incarcerated population, and that we so easily forget them, shun them, even after serving sentences for their crimes, they face incredible hardships as they try to re-enter society.  

The great thing about music is that everyone has a relationship to it; we are all equal; no one is smarter, better, or more touched by it than anyone else.  Everyone is inspired by it, everyone has their own tastes, and everyone feels the power of music individually.  The other great thing about music is that it is a group sport.  It's something that can truly build trust, community, encourage dialogue, self-expression, generate feelings of pride, success, and accomplishment.  Decoda's work in community venues such as prisons, schools, homeless shelters, and health care facilities, have been the best thing to happen to our group both personally and artistically.  

Here's a great example.  One Day 1 at LCI this month, we performed the epic septet version of Strauss' Metamorphosen for the men.  This piece is filled with deep meaning: of destruction, oppression, expression, and hope.  The work is 25 minutes with no break and we were eager to share the work with them, while introducing the week's theme of 'Transformation', for which the Strauss is a seminal example.  The thirty-person audience surrounded us in a circle.  The acoustics in the prison's chapel were not ideal - carpet everywhere, dry as a bone, and over-air conditioned. But this particular performance was particularly important to Decoda.  These men perhaps have never heard a live classical performance, certainly not this piece (most people have never heard it, buffs or not) and especially in such an intimate and relevant space. We played, we poured our hearts into the music, we gave it all we could.  It was a spiritual moment in time - in the midst of Strauss' music the men and we were one - audience and performers no longer, just a group of people experiencing the Metamorphosen together. 

A little side note, Strauss makes a huge Beethoven reference all over Metamorphosen with the dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm and motive, and at the very last phrase of the work, he directly quotes the Funeral March from Beethoven's Third Symphony, the 'Eroica'.  It's an earth-shattering moment. We pointed that out to the men, and to our amazement, the next day when we arrived into the chapel, they were blasting Eroica's slow movement on the speakers as we arrived.  Talk about musical connections.  At the end of the week, one of the men, Sportio, made a public testimonial at the culminating performance that the experience listening to the Strauss was the first time in eight years that he has felt an emotional release and at peace with his daughter's death.  Music is truly amazing. 

On Day 2, at the beginning of our share session, the following song (one of seven that had been written overnight by the men after our first day) was brought to our attention. 'Thinking Out Loud' was written as a 3-part collaboration between some of our musical and poetic leaders of the bunch, Big Hurk, DX, and Big Greazy.  I don't think I will ever forget the moment they introduced it to us - a completely professional performance filled with passion and emotion kicking off Day 2 of our workshop.  Thankfully, 'Thinking Out Loud', our workshop's initial song, made it onto the final concert, and it is so powerful. 

Listen here: 

This particular workshop was over six days - five workshop days (3 hours usually, and a double workshop on Day 5).  Day 6 is dedicated to a culminating and celebratory performance featuring the songs written over the week (nineteen for this project!!!) performed by the men and Decoda, a band affectionately known as BLICODA. 

The week flew by, and everyone was working so hard, and so well together.  It was a mesmerizing display of collaboration, filled with respect.  Everyone worked so well together - and supported each other's ideas, validating the talents of everyone in the room, merging lyrics, melodies, rhythms, and songs.  I don't think in my professional life I've ever seen such beautiful displays of sharing and collaboration. Personally, I loved seeing the leaders in the room transform into a supporting roles, the unsung talents rise to starring roles, the potential and talent in the chapel at Lee was evident and truly before our eyes, we were witnessing transformations.  

Quick backstory: LCI has incredible musical talent and leaders within the BLIC - Rob (guitar and BLIC"s incredible music director), Terry (pianist with superhuman ears), and Big Hurk (drummer and master MC) serve as the house band along with Decoda's own, bassist Kris Saebo.  The BLICODA power quartet learned all of the nineteen songs and backed everyone up with zero ego and complete professionalism.  We couldn't have done it without them, or without the fantastic sound engineers and guitarists, Keith and Russ!

I think the music speaks louder than my words ever could about the quality of the collaborations with the men of BLIC.  This next song was a duo between Lee's house-band pianist, Terry and the choir director, Stewart. Both of these guys are master musicians, but with different personalities and tastes in music. However varied their backgrounds, the result of their working together was an über-collaboration.  Listen to this beautiful country song, with an unexpected middle section that will take your breath away.

We were incredibly lucky to have Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and Washington Post columnist, Kathleen Parker, accompany us on our last two days at LCI.  Click the picture up top to read her thoughtful column where she truly captured the raw essence and pure joy of this collaboration.  Decoda and all the men at LCI are so grateful for her coverage and honest account of the project. 

Since BLICODA 2.0, we have received many messages of support from people around the country, thanks to Kathleen's column.  We are grateful that the conversation about arts programs, education, and quality of life for incarcerated communities is a hot topic.  It really should be. Many of these men at LCI will spend the rest of their lives behind bars. But why should their lives have no sense of meaning, and no sense self-purpose or worth?  And many of the men at LCI will be released and be back in our communities.  It is vital for them to have experiences that are worthwhile that bring hopeful and positive motivation, that cultivate a sense of collaboration, community, trust, build social skills, breed a sense of accomplishment, pride, and success.  And is a vehicle to make these things possible for anyone. 

The men we had the pleasure of working with I believe truly are working to become better people.  Many of them are there - sincerely wonderful and giving members in their community.  It was beautiful to see these men forging down that path of renewal, like so many of us are also striving for in our own lives.  My Decoda colleagues and I have been transformed by knowing and working with these men. They are part of our musical family now, and we wish each one of them the very best for their futures.  We look forward to our next collaboration with LCI and other correctional facilities around the country.

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