Zomba Prison Project

Dec. 21 (GIN) – With voices as gentle as angels, inmates at a maximum prison in Malawi have recorded an album which could capture top prize at the upcoming Grammys.“I Have No Everything Here” was recorded at Malawi’s Zomba prison and is among the first batch of nominations for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards.Slotted for Best World Musical Album” alongside musical giants like Angelique Kidjo and Anoushka Shankar, they are Malawi’s first ever Grammy nominee.The album, recorded in prison by music producer Ian Brennan, captured the attention of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the US who hand out the hotly-contested prize.

Released in January 2015, the album features 16 singer-songwriters in the 20 tracks, 18 of which were written by the prisoners, both male and female. "It is a great accomplishment," gushed Brennan in an interview with Al Jazeera. "I am very happy for the prisoners and quite shocked really," he said. "The awards have become extremely celebrity-driven, and ironically, the World category in particular has become so predictable - it's the same names almost every year … so to see a group of unknown individuals get a nomination makes it that much more of an accomplishment." A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the music will fund legal representation and provide support for the inmates, he said.

The album, in the Chichewa language, combines guitars, solos and softly-pulsing melodies with powerful lyrics.Brennan and his wife, photographer and documentarian Marilena Delli, have been working with incarcerated people to bring underrepresented voices on the world stage. A group of men at the prison already had their own band when Brennan arrived, and a prison officer allowed them to practice for a few hours a week. Women did not immediately join up until near the end of Brennan’s time in the prison when one of the women finally stepped up to the mike.

“It was the dam breaking,” he said. “Once one of them stepped forward, they started queuing up. And some of them came back a second or third time. Some of the best songs are from people who claimed they weren’t songwriters or singers.” Many of the tracks depict the harsh conditions in which the inmates live and the journey that brought them to their incarceration. One song, written and sung by Thomas Binamo, is called, “Please, Don’t Kill my Child.” Another, by Josephine Banda, is titled, “I Kill No More.” And Officer Ines Kaunde wrote one song titled, “I See the Whole World Dying of AIDS.” Brennan says not all the tracks made it on the record but, in total, there were four with the “AIDS” in the title.

“Out of context, ‘I see the Whole World Dying of AIDS,” could seem overstated. But for them, within a country with some of the highest HIV rates in the world, that’s a very real perception,” he says.It’s highly unlikely that the Zomba Prison Band will be able to attend the 2016 Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles. Though some may be released in the future, most will remain in a place with “no everything.”A website for the Zomba Prison Project with links to their songs can be found at

In the summer of 2013, Grammy-winning producer, Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, TV on the Radio) and his wife, Italian photographer and filmmaker, Marilena Delli, traveled to the south of Malawi specifically to document and record the music of prisoners at the maximum security prison in Zomba. While in search of artists, the pair had previously traveled to Rwanda, South Sudan, Palestine, Nairobi, and Algeria— amongst other countries— and these efforts produced multiple albums, often the first ever released internationally from the respective regions and/or in their local languages.

Zomba prison is a dilapidated brick structure that resembles a factory from a Dickens novel and was built in the 19th century. Designed to hold 340 people, today it houses over two thousand. Plus, many of the guards also live on the grounds, just outside the walls. The head of prisons allowed Brennan and Delli access for the project in exchange for Brennan’s offering a series of classes on violence prevention to inmates and guards. They were then embedded within the compound and sworn to secrecy, at one point nearly being detained for taking photos in a forbidden area of the prison (i.e., see the shot included on the actual physical CD). At another moment, they were caught in the middle of a brawl and witnessed a prisoner being beaten after trying to escape through the main door.

“There is a stark difference between the male and female sides of the prison. The men have an organized band and were very particular about how they were to be recorded. The women on the other hand are without instruments— except for drums made from buckets— and they claimed to not write songs. But, in fact, without much encouragement, the women stepped forward one-by-one with stunningly personal tunes like ‘I Kill No More’,” reports Brennan. The majority of prisoners have been given life-sentences. Their crimes range from murder to theft, and the music-making is a multi-generational affair with some members as young as their early twenties, while a few select others have reached more than sixty years of age (the latter being a very advanced number since the life expectancy in Malawi remains about half of what is found in the Western world).



Ian Brennan, a record producer known for his work with Lucinda Williams, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Richard Thompson, as well as African bands like Tinariwen, from northern Mali, and the Malawi Mouse Boys, has completed an unconventional project that will put a spotlight on a largely unexplored current of music – Malawian prison songs.

In August 2013, Mr. Brennan and his wife, Marilena Delli, a documentary filmmaker, spent 10 days at Zomba Prison, an overcrowded maximum-security prison in Malawi, where inmates can spend years without trial — partly because even when hearings are scheduled, the prison system does not provide transportation, and prisoners often cannot attend. During his visit, Mr. Brennan recorded songs composed and performed by the prisoners, and will release some of the music as “The Zomba Prison Project: I Have No Everything Here” (Six Degrees Records) on Jan. 27. Some of the proceeds from the recording will help underwrite legal representation for the prisoners.

The project is in some ways an outgrowth of Mr. Brennan’s work with the Malawi Mouse Boys, whom he discovered and recorded on a trip to the country in 2011.

“We wanted to return to Malawi to go deeper into the culture,” Mr. Brennan said in a telephone interview from San Diego, speaking of himself and Ms. Delli.

“It’s such an impoverished area – and a beautiful area as well – but the prisoners are the poorest of the poor, and the conditions they live in are quite severe. And some are being held on negligible charges like witchcraft or homosexuality. So we thought it would be a compelling thing to do, just for us as human beings, to find a way to give people a platform for self-expression.”

Mr. Brennan and Ms. Delli flew to Malawi with no guarantee that they would have access to the prisoners. What got them in was another of Mr. Brennan’s specialties. Since 1993, he has given courses on conflict resolution and violence prevention, and is the author of two books on the subject, “Hate-less” and “Anger Antidotes.” In an arrangement with the director of the prison, Mr. Brennan agreed to teach his course to both prisoners and guards, in exchange for time with the prisoners.

How did he know that the prisoners would make music worth recording?

“For me,” Mr. Brennan said, “there’s music everywhere, so there was bound to be as much, if not more, in a prison, where people are restricted in ways they can express themselves.”

Some of what Mr. Brennan discovered surprised him. On the men’s side of the prison, he found an organized band, with guitars, drums, keyboards and basses, as well as a generator to provide electricity. There was also a hierarchy, and the band’s leaders knew what they wanted to record, and how.

“When we went to the women’s side of the prison,” he said, “it was an entirely different story. They had nothing, no instruments. The did a lot of choral singing, and they did traditional dances, to lift their spirits. And they all claimed, ‘we’re not songwriters.’ But then one of them got up and sang a song of her own, and once that happened, it was like a dam breaking. One after another, for hours, they came up and sang some of the most moving, beautiful, songs, many of them clearly about their experiences, with titles like ‘I Kill No More’ and ‘Goodbye All My Friends.’”

All told, Mr. Brennan recorded about six hours of music, sung in tribal languages (mostly Chichewa), about an hour of which – 19 original songs and one traditional choral piece – will be included on the CD. Ms. Delli also produced a short documentary on the visit, which Mr. Brennan said would probably be posted on the record label’s web page.

The men’s group is actually led by an individual who is serving a life-sentence due to having committed murder during a robbery plot where he and his gang attempted to steal equipment from another band.

Meanwhile, some of the women are held due to circumstances arising from accusations of “witchcraft”, with often their only real crime having been “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” essentially. Through the Zomba Prison project, three of the women involved have gained release from their sentences. And three other cases are now actively under review due to the funds that have been raised. The hope is that these efforts will be ongoing and more prisoners will be advocated for as a result of awareness and support brought about through “I Have No Everything Here” album.

Brennan states, “How can it be that their are what are labeled music ‘centers’ in the world? Music is universal. It exists everywhere and is a necessity for survival spiritually. Our hope is to help tip the scales, in the most minuscule way, back to fairer representation. It is indefensible that literally hundreds of thousands of musicians from cities like London, LA and New York have been heard ad nauseam for decades, while not a single record has ever even been released internationally from entire countries composed of millions of citizens and that have been rendered so invisible that the majority of people on the planet would have a hard time even locating them on a map.”

Over five dozen people were recorded for the Zomba Prison project sessions, totaling more than six hours of music.