Music Review: Tiyo's Songs of Life

reviewed by John Malkin
Tiyo's Songs of Life by Felipe Salles

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Tiyo Attallah Salah-El was born in 1932 in Pennsylvania. After serving as a tank operator in the Korean War, he played tenor saxophone at R&B clubs. He became involved in small-time drug deals, took someone’s life, and was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. It was “in a cage on slow death row,” as Tiyo described it, where these songs were born. Titles include “Blues to Change Your Views—On Stage in a Cage,” “Live a Life of Love,” and “I’m Reaching Out.”

Tiyo died in prison in 2018 after almost 50 years of being incarcerated. Only recently were his songs recorded for the first time by Brazilian-born saxophonist, professor, and band leader Felipe Salles.

Back in 2005, Lois Ahrens, founder of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, sent Tiyo 50 blank sheets of music paper, which he filled within a few months. After years of trying to find someone to perform Tiyo’s music, Ahrens found Salles, whose own compositions, like his 2020 multimedia work The New Immigrant Experience, touch on social-political themes.

Tiyo’s Songs of Life features Salles on saxophone with pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Avery Sharpe, and drummer Jonathan Barber. Salles combined the blues and hard bop feel of Tiyo’s compositions with modern melodies. “These tunes reveal a beautiful soul,” Salles told S&H. “Tiyo never let his horrible situation crush his soul. Despite everything, his music shows a deep love for people.” Not only did Tiyo compose dozens of songs in prison, but he also earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and founded the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons.

One of Tiyo’s songs is dedicated to Ahrens, and another is titled “Blues for Pablo—Blues for Professor Zinn.” Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, became a friend and teacher to Tiyo. Pablo refers to Zinn’s agent Paul Alan Smith, who published Tiyo’s prison letters in the 2020 book Pen Pal.

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