Ian Brennan and Marilena Delli's ZOMBA PRISON PROJECT Nabs GRAMMY Nomination
At Malawi's maximum-security Zomba Central Prison, children are often imprisoned for the crimes of their mothers; cells are filled wall-to-wall with people from mid-afternoon until dawn every day, without light or access to a toilet; and inmates are held for years without a fair trial, due to a dense bureaucracy, alck of funds, and/or intermittent strikes in the courts system.
In the summer of 2013, Ian Brennan, GRAMMY Award-winning producer of Tinariwen and TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe, and Marilena Delli, Italian photographer and filmmaker, traveled to the prison and recorded and documented the inmates as they sang deeply personal songs, many of which depict the the harsh conditions in which they live.
The resulting album, Zomba Prison Project: I Have No Everything Here (Six Degrees Records, January 2015), is now nominated for the Best World Music Album GRAMMY Award, marking the first time that a record from Malawi has been nominated in the fifty-eight year history of this prestigious award.
Brennan and Delli's work at the Zomba Central Prison hearkens back to John and Alan Lomax's recordings at Mississippi's Parchman Farm in the early 1930s (which through some supernatural synchronicity is nominated for best historical album this year), which captured the struggle against oppression and poverty in the Depression-era American South; I Have No Everything Here offers a rare glimpse into the struggle of Malawi's people. Brennan writes in the liner notes, "Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and has a correspondingly high rate of murder. The unfortunate reality is that for many inmates, the dismal jail environment is no worse than what they faced at home."
Zomba Central Prison, a dilapidated 19th century brick structure, resembles a factory from a Dickens novel. Designed to hold 340 people, it today houses over 2,000, staffed by only 153 guards. Most prisoners lack the funds for even a basic defense, and are detained for decades or life. They have been convicted of crimes ranging from theft to murder. Many of the women are held for "witchcraft," often resulting from an abuser's accusation. Compounding the overpopulation of the prison, many of the guards also live on the grounds, just outside the walls, in conditions that are only slightly better than their charges.
Brennan and Delli were granted access by the head of the prison in exchange for Brennan giving a series of violence prevention classes to inmates and guards. Brennan and Delli were sworn to secrecy, and at one point were detained briefly for taking photos in a forbidden area. At another moment, they were caught amidst a brawl and witnessed guards beating a prisoner who attempted escape through the main door.
The inmates Brennan recorded span several generations, from early 20s to over 70-an extremely old age in Malawi, where life expectancy remains about half of what is found in the Western world. "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.
To raise awareness about the prisoners' situation, and to advocate on inmates' behalf, Brennan and Delli have established the Zomba Prison Project. A portion of the proceeds from sales of the I Have No Everything Here album will fund legal representation and other support. Since the Zomba Prison Project's formation in the summer of 2013, three incarcerated women have gained release, and three other cases are now under review.
About Ian Brennan
Ian Brennan has been awarded a GRAMMY for his past work and has produced four GRAMMY-nominated records. As a producer and engineer, he has collaborated with artists including Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Rain Machine (Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio), Flea, Tinariwen, Lucinda Williams, Bob Forrest (Survival Songs) David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Nels Cline (Wilco), DJ Bonebrake & John Doe (X, the Knitters), Peter Case, Bill Frisell, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jonathan Richman, Richard Thompson and more.
Brennan has produced albums by-and introduced to Western audiences-The Good Ones (Rwanda), Wayo: Trance Percussion Masters (South Sudan), Acholi Machon, Hanoi Masters (Vietnam), and the Malawi Mouse Boys. These albums were the first released internationally in the respective languages of each country.
Brennan also produced Italian artist Jovanotti's official U.S. debut, Italia: 1988-2012, which ATO Records released in 2012. Brennan co-wrote two of the album's tracks.
Brennan has also produced concerts across the U.S. with artists as diverse as Green Day, Fugazi, Merle Haggard, film-maker John Waters, Kris Kristofferson, Tammy Faye (Bakker), the Blind Boys of Alabama, Vic Chesnutt, Peaches, and the Vienna Boys Choir.
As a writer, Brennan was first published at the age of 19. He has contributed regularly to publications such as Guitar Player and Zero Magazine. He has published two books, Anger Antidotes(2011) and Hate-less(2014). His novella, Sister Maple Syrup Eyes was issued in the fall of 2015. Readers+Writersjournal praised it, "A beautiful book. Achingly beautiful." And Louder Than War states the book is, "....alive with the energy of an eye-witness."
His fourth book, How Music Dies (or Lives): Field-recording and the battle for democracy in the arts will be published on February 2nd, 2016(Allworth/Skyhorse, NYC) and features a foreword by Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney).
About Marilena Delli
Dr. Marilena Delli is a documentary filmmaker who studied at UCLA, University of Bergamo (where she did the first thesis in Italy on African Cinema), TOA, and the British Film Institute. She has directed the full-length documentary "Rwanda Mama'" about her mother's return to her native country for the first time in 30 years following the genocide, and music-videos for The Good Ones (Rwanda), Wayo (Zande tribe), General Paolino/Mama Celina (South Sudan), Hanoi Masters (Vietnam), Sainkho Namtchylak (Tuva), and the Malawi Mouse Boys. Her debut book, Racism Italian Style ("Razzismo all'italiana")- a nonfiction work-is being published on January 20th in Italy.