They are housed in a crammed, dilapidating maximum-security prison, and their album was recorded with the most basic of equipment. Yet, come February, this unlikely collective might be at the top of the music world.
A group of male and female inmates at Malawi’s Zomba Prison received a surprising Grammy nomination on Monday in the World Music category, marking the first time that a music act from the landlocked southern African country will be represented at the prestigious awards.
“It is a great accomplishment,” Ian Brennan, the producer behind the Zomba Prison Project, told 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.”
‘Don’t Hate Me’
Released last January, “I Have No Everything Here” by the Zomba Prison Project is an eclectic collection of 20 songs, 18 of which were written by the prisoners themselves.
Most of the participants are serving life sentences. Their crimes range from murder to assault to theft, said Brennan, but there are others, especially women, who have been imprisoned over “more questionable” charges like witchcraft and issues related to homosexuality, or simply because their cases are taking too long to be heard due to bureaucracy.
“I am alone at the wide river and I have failed to cross it. When I was doing things secretly, I thought that no one was watching me,” sings honey-voiced Rhoda, a 42-year-old woman sentenced to life in prison, on “I Am Alone”.
“Share with the earth your happiness. Give happiness to this world, no matter where you are. Try to show joy every day to the people around you,” sings Agnes on “Don’t Hate Me”, accompanied by a steady rhythm guitar.
The songs were recorded over less than two weeks in the summer of 2013, when Brennan, a US Grammy-winning producer famous for his commitment to bring international exposure to musicians ignored by the mainstream music industry, returned to Malawi on his latest music endeavour.
In the past, Brennan helped propel to international fame groups like the Malawi Mouse Boys, a gospel band whose members made a living by selling roasted mice to passing drivers, and Rwanda’s The Good Ones, a trio of genocide survivors.
“The idea had been fermenting for quite a long time,” said Brennan of his decision to head to Zomba Prison in southeast Malawi near the border with Mozambique.
“Wanting to not only to give voice to people who are under-heard or underrepresented internationally, but also to go even deeper into some of the most under-heard and underrepresented people of these populations.
“My belief is almost everyone is musical and I think that people that are under-heard have even more to express potentially.”
Built in the 19th century to hold 340 people, the brick-walled Zomba Prison is today home to an estimated 2,000 people living in severe conditions, said Brennan.
The US producer was granted access to launch the project after agreeing to the prison head’s request to offer violence prevention classes to both inmates and guards. He then secured the permission of the prisoners, and began recording outdoors and next to the metal and woodworking shops.
“The entire recording was done with just six channels,” said Brennan. “The men had an organised band to some degree and they wanted to know more – their big concern was that they wanted to be sure that they were going to be recorded well, they were kind of checking me out – like, are you coming in with that [setup]?”
The women, on the other hand, were more reserved.
With access to just a few buckets used as drums, they initially claimed to not write any songs. But it all changed when one of them finally stepped forward to sing a tune.
“It was like the floodgates had been opened, and then it went on for close to two hours,” said Brennan.
“It was astonishing – just that it was happening, but also how beautiful and how good it was.”
Overall, some 70 male and female prisoners aged from their early 20s to 70s were involved in some form in the album.
“The people have stayed with me,” said Brennan. “There’s certain moments where you just begin to cry with somebody’s playing because it’s so shocking and beautiful.”
Brennan said that despite being a “money-losing device”, the project has raised funds that have helped some of the prisoners get legal representation and gain release from their sentences.
He added, however, that it was “definitely” certain that the locked-up musicians involved in the album won’t be able to attend the Grammy’s ceremony on February 15.
“In an ideal world, the hope is that something like this that it can lead to future opportunities for individuals,” he said.
Follow Teo Kermeliotis on Twitter: @Teo_Kermeliotis