Back to All Events

Sounding Board: Music, Prisons, and Transformation

Sounding Board: Music, Prisons, and Transformation

In 1933, folklorists John and Alan Lomax went inside Louisiana’s Angola prison and made a series of recordings that are celebrated to this day. Eighty years later, filmmaker and ethnomusicologist Ben Harbert followed in the Lomaxes’ footsteps, visiting Angola and other Louisiana penitentiaries to document the state of prison music today.

Halfway around the world in Malawi, GRAMMY Award-winning producer Ian Brennan recorded music made by prisoners and guards at the maximum-security prison Zomba, a place so overcrowded it’s been called “the waiting room of hell.” One critic described the first CD of the resulting Zomba Prison Project, "I Have No Everything Here" (Six Degrees Records, 2015), as “undertaking a journey of preservation as fine as anything a Lomax ever put together.” In 2016, the Zomba Prison Project released a second album, I Will Not Stop Singing.

Join Harbert, Brennan, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings director and curator Huib Schippers as they discuss complex and timely questions about the societal tensions between administering justice and facilitating rehabilitation, the transformative power of music, and more.

This event kicks off Sounding Board, a series of public programs produced by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary of promoting cultural exploration, exchange, and equity.


Ian Brennan is a music producer, promoter, activist, and author who has worked with the likes of Flea, TV on the Radio, Tinariwen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bill Frisell, and Lucinda Williams, among others. In addition to the two Zomba Prison Project albums, his latest projects include the book "How Music Dies (or Lives): Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts" (Allworth Press, 2016).

Ben Harbert is an associate professor of music at Georgetown University. His doctoral research was on music in three Louisiana prisons, which resulted in the feature-length documentary "Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Portraits" (2012). His other interests include international extreme metal and music of the Near East. Harbert’s theoretical approach connects investigations of musical experiences to analyses of musical phenomena.

Huib Schippers is director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. A leading voice in music research, he has published numerous articles, chapters, and books, including "Facing the Music: Shaping Music Education from a Global Perspective" (Oxford University Press, 2009) and "Sustainable Futures for Music Cultures: An Ecological Approach" (Oxford University Press, 2016). From 2012 to 2015, he led a groundbreaking project on understanding and positioning performing arts in prisons, "Captive Audiences," to be released as an edited volume later this year by Intellect Publishers.

RSVP via Facebook