10:17 pm - Wednesday 21 November 2018

Zomba Prisoners Receive Grammy Nomination

By Amalawi - Thu Dec 10, 6:09 pm

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A Group of male and female inmates from Malawi, most of whom face life sentences, named contenders in prestigious awards.

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.

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, 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.
The album, which features a series of rousing performances combines gentle guitars and softly-pulsing melodies with powerful lyrics.

Zomba Prisoners

Zomba Prisoners

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.

Tough conditions

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.”

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