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Howard Wiley: To Angola and Back

Bay area saxophonist pays musical tribute to men imprisoned at Louisiana prison

Howard Wiley
Howard Wiley's The Angola Project album cover
Howard Wiley

Sometimes inspiration comes from unlikely sources. It took a West Coast ethnomusicologist with a passion for his subject to bring Bay area saxophonist Howard Wiley closer not only to the Southern roots of his own family, but to the difficult conditions of the incarcerated men at Angola prison in Louisiana. Wiley and his group, The Angola Project, recently released 12 Gates to the City, an album dedicated to the legendary Louisiana prison and its inmates. The CD which features music by Wiley’s “soul chamber ensemble,” as he calls it, pays tribute to those men doing time at that Louisiana State penitentiary. This album was his second about Angola and incorporates even more of the music and ideas of the men imprisoned there.

Coming into the project, the 31-year-old Wiley had no particular affinity for the prison or its residents. “My friend and partner on this project is Daniel Atkinson, who’s a big jazzhead and worked for this label in San Francisco called Monarch Records,” explained Wiley. “He said to me, ‘You got to check out these records from this label out of El Cerrito, Arhoolie Records.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, “It’s these prison spirituals.’ And I went, ‘Naaah, I’m sorry.’ If he had come to me with a bootleg Trane or Monk, it would have been different. But I was very hesitant at first. You just hear ‘prison’ and ‘music’ and you don’t know really what to think.”

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