Ian Brennan wanted to make a record with music performed by prisoners. He’s a Grammy-winning record producer who likes to bring attention to the voices of people who aren’t usually heard.
So when he heard that a prison in Malawi had a band, off he went to the maximum security facility. « We just took the leap of faith and went down there, » says Brennan, a California native who has worked with artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bill Friselland who now lives in Italy.
Brennan first visited the prison on a Sunday, and « it was incredible how much music was going on, different choirs everywhere, » he remembers. That was in August 2013. He went on to record songs sung by different inmates, who were serving time for everything from burglary to murder.
Released in January 2015, the album « I Have No Everything Here » earned a Grammy nomination in the world music category. (Angelique Kidjo won the award.)
We talked to Brennan about the music made in Zomba Prison.
What does music mean to the prisoners?
Chikondi Salanje — he was in for burglary — said it’s a form of freedom [for prisoners] to be able to play music, to almost teleport themselves to somewhere better.
I’m sure it’s a bit of a risk to record music by people who aren’t professionals.
We don’t put out everything we record. The songs and musicians have to stand on their own. [The music] has to be striking, to move something in you. It’s almost a disservice to put out a record if the songs don’t stand on their own.
What made you decide to do a second album with the Zomba musicians?
After the Grammy nomination, the logical question from the record label was: « Do you want to do another record? » My answer was, « No. » I don’t want to do things for commercial reasons. But then we went back to the prison in May, and Thomas Binamo played a song about the loss of his wife called « I Will Never Stop Grieving For You, My Wife. » And I felt, « I have to put this out. » I felt there was no choice. » It’s hard for me to imagine somebody not being affected by that song. It’s a ballad. It’s beautiful.