Nelson Mandela once said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” And, Adriana Helbig might add, until they hear the music that comes from those jails.
Helbig is chair of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Music and teaches two courses that examine music made by prisoners across the U.S., around the world and here in Western Pennsylvania.
Prison Sounds analyzes relationships between sound and incarceration. Creative Ethnomusicology surveys musical genres from Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Mexico, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean and takes place in a unique setting — a classroom with 12 Pitt undergraduates and 12 incarcerated men together at Fayette State Correctional Institution in La Belle, 50 miles south of Pittsburgh.
The courses are part of the Pitt Prison Education Project, a cross-disciplinary network of Pitt faculty who offer instruction at state prisons in Fayette, Laurel Highlands and Somerset. Modeled on the international Inside-Out program, the Pitt project brings incarcerated students and Pitt students together for engaged and informed dialogue.
Helbig received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in ethnomusicology, an academic field that studies music in its social, historical and cultural contexts. Ethnomusicology not only describes the structural elements of music, but delves deeply into how music is used in society and what it means to those who play and hear it.
Since joining the Pitt music faculty in 2008, Helbig’s research and teaching have included world music, global hip-hop, music and disability, Romani music and minority and migration studies. An adept performer of piano and accordion, she has also directed student ensembles of Carpathian music and American Bluegrass. Her first book, “Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race and African Migration,” explored how hip hop has become a major vehicle for social change in Eastern Europe. She co-edited “Hip Hop At Europe’s Edge: Music, Agency, and Social Change” with Miłosz Miszczyński and her “ReSounding Poverty: Romani Music and Development Aid” is due out on Oxford University Press in 2023.
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NEXTpittsburgh: Many readers might not realize how much American roots music is associated with prisons or outlaw themes.
Adriana Helbig: Thousands of blues, field hollers and work songs were collected in the 1930s and ’40s from inmates of Southern prisons like Parchman Farm and Angola State Prison. There were decades of folk ballads about outlaws from Jesse James and Billy the Kid to Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” It’s still a major song-making tradition in Mexico with narcocorridos composed about contemporary drug lords. Really, it’s in every country and era. We have music created by inmates in Soviet gulags and Nazi death camps. Think about almost every classic opera you’ve heard. Most have a prison scene, where the hero or heroine sings a major aria, an aria of reflection on how they came to this point.
NEXTpittsburgh: I’m remembering the “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison” album.
Helbig: And “B.B. King, Live in Cook County Jail;” “Jerry Garcia and John Kahn, Live at Oregon State Penitentiary;” “Black Uhuru Live at Soledad Prison;” “The Sex Pistols, Live at Chelmsford Top Security Prison” and many more that were issued on major record labels and reached a large audience. In the Prison Sounds course we identify the specific roles music plays in prison and how music serves as testament, protest, memory and release.
NEXTpittsburgh: So, “prison sounds” takes in more than just songs?
Helbig: One of the first things you notice in a correctional setting is sound. Incarcerated people orient their day sonically … footsteps, keys, voices, alarms … sounds that chart a routine or its disruption. Students do sound studies of that environment. And how people in that environment find their peace through music.
NEXTpittsburgh: How did you get the idea to add these courses to the Pitt music curriculum?
Helbig: During the initial stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was unable to travel abroad to conduct ethnographic research. I took on a part-time shift as a Lyft driver in Pittsburgh as a way to expand my fieldwork methods. I loved doing that, it was so eye-opening. I acquired several regular riders who had incarcerated relatives and friends. We would have conversations about prison and the culture there. I realized there could be a course about a form of contemporary music that touched on social justice, poverty, and educational access.
NEXTpittsburgh: You were trained as a classical pianist. When did your musical focus shift from performing to research?
Helbig: After completing my undergraduate degrees in Music and German from Drew University, I studied piano at Vienna Conservatory in Austria. I noticed the street musicians playing at the entrance and was intrigued. These were Roma musicians who had come to Vienna fleeing the 1990s Balkan Wars. I decided I didn’t want to just play Beethoven anymore. I wanted to study music of our time and how it impacts our society. And that is the essence of ethnomusicology.
NEXTpittsburgh: Quite an abrupt change!
Helbig: Actually, it had been developing for a long time. I grew up in New Jersey, but my grandparents were political refugees from western Ukraine. My mother operated a travel agency that helped Ukrainians in North America reunite with relatives in the Soviet Union and Ukraine. A lot of the music I played as a child was written in concentration camps and prison camps — heavy, heavy stuff. My piano teacher’s husband had been in a WWII camp, and she taught me repertoire that had been banned by the Soviets and Nazis.
As I got older, I realized what these songs represented and that I’d been raised around people who’d gone through tremendous trauma and still expressed it in their music. It became a sort of spiritual journey for me.
NEXTpittsburgh: Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine early this year, you’ve been producing YouTube videos about the music Ukranians have been making during this time.
Helbig: In Ukraine, music is resistance; it’s used to get through the next difficulty. I have been sharing stories of musicians I know, translating for the media to help them understand what Ukraine’s wartime music means.
Music always has a purpose, it’s entertainment, of course, but it’s a release from something else.
There is a very powerful musical story you may have heard about. When the Ukrainian fighters were trapped for three months in the Azovstal steel plant at Mariupol, one of their combat medics was a young girl, Kateryna Polishchuk. She sang every day to keep up morale and recorded videos that made it onto social media worldwide. They nicknamed her “Ptashka,” the Songbird of Mariupol. She was just released in the recent prisoner exchange and is back in Ukraine.
NEXTpittsburgh: Why would you recommend someone take an ethnomusicology course, even if they weren’t a music major?
Helbig: I have never met a student who doesn’t like music, no matter what their academic field, no matter if they play music themselves. Technology today gives us access to music from around the world that helps us learn about other cultures.
If you want to take the next step and ask, where does this music come from and what does it mean, ethnomusicology does that. It gives voice to those who are silenced, women, minorities, the incarcerated. A musician with one phrase can do so much to connect with everyone. Ethnomusicology helps us discover how and why.