Grammy award winning producer, Ian Brennan and his wife embarked on an amazing project to have prisoners in one of the poorest countries in the world heard. The Zomba Prison Project has brought the first Grammy nomination to Malawi. Many people may only know this landlocked country because of the very public adoption of a small boy by Madonna. This is Ian Brennan’s second album from the country. He discovered and worked with the Malawi Mouse Boys on previous trips to the country. He is a very interesting character and had a great desire to record and album in a prison. That is definitely something far off the radar for most of us. It seems to be paying off as this award nomination proves. Thanks to modern technology and international calling we were able to speak briefly with Ian about the experience. Read what he has to say. You can check out some of their music here.
How did you get involved with the Zomba Prison Project?
My wife and I have been doing field recordings for almost a decade now. We try to go to countries and populations that are underrepresented. We have been to Malawi previously and recorded there with the Malawi Mouse Boys that we discovered. They have gone on to do very well with world music internationally. We really wanted to go deeper in the culture and I have wanted to do a record in a prison for decades. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Malawi Mouse Boys are from one of the poorest regions of Malawi. People from the city have a very different way that they want to represent their country and that is understandable. Their viewpoint is valid. There are people living very harsh lives Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Malawi Mouse Boys are from one of the poorest regions of Malawi. People from the city have a very different way that they want to represent their country and that is understandable. Their viewpoint is valid. There are people living very harsh lives without water and without power. We ended up representing without water and without power. We ended up representing without water and without power. We went to that region not really by design but we ended up in a very underrepresented region even in Malawi. Then we thought on who would be even more underrepresented meaning censored, silenced, punished or even demonized more than the people in a prison. So we went to the maximum security prison there and embarked on this songwriting and recording project with them.
Were they already singing together or did you see musical talent there?
Well, it was a leap of faith. We were not guaranteed access to the prison without traveling to Malawi which is a lengthy and expensive trip. It is about a four day trip and costs thousands of dollars. We did know that there was an organized men’s band but we didn’t know if they were any good. The ironic part is that over fifty percent of the record came from the women’s side of the prison. The majority of the stuff that came out of the band environment was not the band. It was solo members of the band and people that did not normally write songs or even sing in the band. One of the best songs on the record is by the bass player who doesn’t normally sing. Another one is by the drummer and that sort of thing.
How difficult was it to get permission to work on this project in the maximum security prison?
We had the benefit of some NGOs helping us lay the groundwork going in. I am sure if we had just shown up at the gate that it never would have happened. Once people agreed to do it, then people were quite welcoming.
You mentioned that the prisoners are jailed for homosexuality or even witchcraft. Do they seriously have hopes of ever getting out of prison?
Well it is very complicated. People don’t really want to talk about it. It is all very taboo. There was an effort by the new president about three years ago where she made a move to suspend the laws against homosexuality but within a couple of days it was rescinded because there was such outrage in the country. Interesting, the same basic thing just happened again on December 21st. Officially right now, they have suspended the law. They didn’t try to rescind it this time. Two men who were imprisoned earlier in December for homosexuality have been released. You have some big countries like the US and England that give Malawi aid but are also pressuring them to do away with some of these laws that are just left over from colonialism. These laws are pretty antiquated and barbaric. There are also huge amounts of money and pressures from Far Right Religious groups in the West pressuring them to keep these laws. It kind of creates a weird stalemate. It is almost an ideological war. There are also huge amounts of money and pressures from Far Right Religious groups in the West pressuring them to keep these laws. It kind of creates a weird stalemate. It is almost an ideological war.
Do you think that people like Scott Lively being brought to trial for Crimes Against Humanity for exporting his Hate to Third World Countries will help the situation?
I am not an expert but I think that awareness is good. People knowing that it isn’t a playground and they don’t get to do these things without consequences. It has to be a good thing. I am not arguing for a global police state. People certainly have to understand that there can’t be regions where people get away with murder literally. They just can’t go to these places and incite hate without consequences.
How long did it take to make and produce this album?
We were there for almost two weeks. We record about six hours of music with about sixty people. There are sixteen people and twenty songs on the finished album. The post-production with field recording is the most laborious. Field recording is generally on the fly and very guerilla. You end up with a mass of material and you try to find a narrative. You want to present things in the best possible light.
How does an album like this get in front of the Grammy committee?
Well it is a democratic process by members of the Recording Academy. It is don’t by secret ballot. It is an astounding achievement. Anything that is released in North America is potentially eligible if entered. I think there is an average of about one-hundred-thousand releases a year. It is insane. The digital era has more than doubles the number of releases per year. For this to be nominated is incredibly shocking, amazing and beautiful. The World category is the category where a vast majority music around the world has a chance. If it is not in Spanish or particularly English then there is this one category with five slots. This year, four of the people have been nominated more than once and two were nominated last year. All of them but one have won. So for this group of prisoners from the world’s poorest country just shows the awards at their best. It is strictly on merit alone.
What do you think this would mean for these people?
It has already been beneficial to them on a modest level financially. It certainly brings awareness to the prison. I guess that the key is that we hope it becomes sustainable. It helps with the legal fees for some of the people involved. There have been three people released because of that legal help. There have also been people involved that were released just because their sentence was finished. We have two more cases that are actively being reviewed right now. It would be great if everyone that was involved in the project was free again. That would probably be the ultimate goal.
Future Plans & Help for the Zomba Prison Project of Malawi
Are you planning a second album?
Probably not. We have enough material to do a follow up but I tend not be a big fan of sequels. I tend to want songs and records to speak for themselves and not to dilute of diminish them. Maybe someday there would be a deluxe version but I am not certain.
Is there anything that our readers can do to help these people?
Yes, there are two main organizations. The Prison Fellowship and F.A.L.M.I. in Malawi. They both provide a lot of non-governmental services to the prisoners. The money goes a lot further there. A dollar is very powerful there compared to what it can buy you in the US.