Listen to a Song Recorded by Prisoners in Southern Malawi

Entitled "A Message (I Will Take You)," off of the upcoming compilation 'I Have No Everything Here.'

by Zachary Lipez
Jan 26 2015, 2:00pm

Photos by Marilena Delli

The Zomba Central Prison, in the southern region of Malawi, was built in 1935. It is where a large population of Malawi’s political prisoners, accused murderers, and women accused of witchcraft are detained, sometimes indefinitely. At the risk of repeating tired tropes of disease and violence in a poor African nation, Malawi is extremely poor, the prison is appallingly overcrowded, and disease and violence are rampant. As with prison systems world wide, the humanity of the inmates is perpetually denied by the combination of bureaucracy, cruel indifference, and sheer, brutal economic realities. And, at the accompanying risk of sounding like a Polly Anna, music remains a source of dignity for those who are regularly denied it.

Ian Brennan, who has worked with artists as diverse as Tinariwen, Lucinda Williams, and Fugazi, and his partner, documentary filmmaker Marilena Delli, were granted rare access to the Zomba Prison. In return for teaching classes on conflict resolution to both inmates and prison guards, they were allowed to make musical recordings of the prisoners. The men’s wing had musical instruments. The woman’s wing had not a thing.

The pair established the Zomba Prison Project, where they hope to use the music the inmates themselves make to raise both awareness and hard cash in which to help those incarcerated with both legal representation and logistical support. So far they have seen three inmates released.

The resultant album, I Have No Everything Here, is, as one would expect, largely incredibly sad. The subject matter of the songs, field recordings spanning in genre from groovy pop to gospel to a single voice rising in sorrow as birds are heard in the background, is hardship. The prisoners sing about death, AIDS, and, often, missing their children. The music is also inventive, uniformly compelling and, in a way that unsettles the listener, entirely lovely.

Brennan was kind enough to talk at length with Noisey about the project, the music itself, and the always-present moral dangers inherent to these types of cross-cultural excursions. Listen to "A Message (I Will Take You)," a cut from the record below, and read my chat with Brennan below that.

I Have No Everything Here by Zomba Prison Project comes out on Six Degree Records on January 27th.

Noisey: You were already doing some work and recording in Malawi, but what led between doing some recording there and getting to the prisons?
Ian Brennan:
My wife, Marilena Delli, and I did the Malawi Mouse Boy records there in a search for them, or a group like them. We were interested in going to underrepresented countries (of which there are many, too many really). We were also interested in potentially going to prisons, which were even more underrepresented. This is the maximum-security prison in Malawi, which is on the border of Malawi and Mozambique. So we were able to tentatively set up potential access to the prison, but it wouldn’t be guaranteed unless we actually went there. We literally didn’t know until the day before we started recording whether we would be allowed in until we met with the head of prisons. It seemed like a leap of faith, but it seemed like a place where there’d be a lot of people needing and wanting to express themselves.

I understand that the country was much more totalitarian into the 90’s and now it’s at least ostensibly a democracy. In the prison was it a larger state oversight? Or was it just up to the prison wardens, or are you not even privy to that?
I’m not privy but they did this pretty independently. I say this in part because their not willingness to commit until we were there. They asked for tons of paperwork like all bureaucracies, and when we actually got there, the head guy seemed almost unaware of some of the paperwork and its requests. Then there was the head of the prisons and then the head of the prison, like the actual officer. We didn’t even meet him for many days in, maybe it was only the second or third day, but we thought we had met him. Like a bureaucracy we thought we already met with the head of the prison. There was one officer who was there presently most of the time particularly on the men's side, but there was another guy who was head officer.

So did you go in and immediately teach conflict resolution or just start recording? How did you do that?
We started with the recording, and we started on the men’s side because they have an organized band. They have some equipment, and one of the guys was a working musician, to whatever degree that’s possible in Malawi, before being in prison. In fact he was in prison because his band tried to steal the equipment of another band, and people got killed in the process, which is why he’s in prison.

Which band was that?
We sort of agreed with them to not name specific people. I can talk about the generalities are the majority of the men there are there for murder, the majority of the women are there for accused witchcraft, and some of them are there for other crimes like theft and assault.

With the women there’s a lot of accused witchcraft, and with the men it was more murder and theft. Did it seem like the men you could conceivably argue have actually done something and the women like, “Oh my god why are they here?”
Yeah, that I know of. I don’t want to stand in judgment, but every man I know that was there was there for a legitimate crime. Whether they deserve the punishment or not, because the punishment is very severe, but they have all committed crimes like theft. But a big percentage of the women were there for questionable reasons, and part of it is we hope to advocate on the behalf of some of these folks who are in some cases languishing in prison because they don’t have bail money, or just because of bureaucracy. It can go on for years, or decades because of the bureaucratic aspects and lack of transportation. Malawi is a big, long, and narrow country, and some of these folks are up from the north. To get an appeal they have to go all the way up there, and it’s not a short distance, you’re talking a five-six hour drive. And the prison doesn’t have transportation, so even if they get a hearing, they aren’t necessarily able to attend. So quite a few of the women are there for questionable reasons, but some are there for legitimate reasons like murder.

So are some of the profits of this going towards legal defense?
Yeah, I tend to look at the utility of money, which in this case is maybe $100-$150 their cases can be heard, which is a very small amount of money. We were able to help in the process of people getting released, which happened very quickly in the span of months. We were very surprised and inspired by that, so we immediately contributed more of our money in advance of the album or anything. We contributed to get even more people out, and the original three have been out for more than a year. We literally got an email Monday saying, “sorry we haven’t updated you, happy new years!” And this has been since November of 2013.

With the general content of the music, I know there’s the standing band on the men’s side, and not with the women. You talked a little about how you had to push the women a little to preform a little; were they still performing for each other? What purpose does music serve there beyond your interaction with them?
I wouldn’t want to speak entirely on their behalf, but I can speak and paraphrasing to some degree that certainly they expressed they engage in music and dance; it helps lift their spirits. Many of them engage pretty frequently in their own tribal dances, because many of the folks there are from the same tribe and that unifies them, not in a competitive way. So the choral singing, the traditional dances were all something they were very comfortable doing. But to sing their own songs, they had none and they all claimed they couldn’t, and had zero instruments. But we brought a guitar and once the first person, with much encouragement, came forward with a song it went on for hours, one after another after another after another. And the songs they were playing were only a minute long, but just devastating how good they were especially in contrast to all of them saying they weren’t songwriters, that they didn’t have songs. Then they’d step up and sing these songs and it was like “oh my god.”

So did you do that all in like one day where they’re all in a communal group? How long was the process?
We were there for more than a week. Initial days were just spent building relationships. On the men’s side we recorded three or four days, and one of the days was specifically to go back and record the one gentleman who didn’t write a song, because he didn’t think of himself as a songwriter. So I spoke with him and asked if he would make a deal if I came by a few days later if he would write a song with me. Again, pretty reluctantly but he said yes. It’s one of the best songs on the record, it’s a young guy named Stefano. I guess it was the first song he’d ever written, he wrote it specifically for this purpose.

What made you think he’d be able to do it?
I believe there’s music in everybody, and certainly a need to express themselves. Certainly on a human level, on an interpersonal level and intuitive level, this guy had a lot of stuff going on. Pretty intense man. And my wife was there recording video and photographing them, so she sees a lot of things I don’t because she’s really looking. We both saw there was an intensity in him, but aside from him literally everyone contributed a song. It wasn’t originally going to be that way, but it was hoped that way.

So was there a music project already set up? I mean it’s a huge overcrowded prison.
These guys, even though they’re in there for life, some have earned privileges to come out there for a few hours many days of the week, and in comparison to the inside of the prison, it’s a world apart. It’s like heaven, an oasis. It’s much less crowded and cleaner and so these guys go out there and it goes beyond the music. It’s a privilege they’re allowed to do this. There’s an area men are allowed to develop skills, there’s a metalworking and woodworking area that some people have earned the privilege and an area where these guys can make music, with an amplifier, keyboard, drum kit, guitars.

Is it a similar situation with the women that they can earn privileges to be outside?
No. The women’s side is much different: it’s much smaller. It’s 50-100 people out of more than 2,000, so they have a smaller area. But there are also no privileges there for them, and the sleeping area is more crowded, the conditions are not good. The actual outdoor area is more spacious in comparison proportionately, but they don’t have the same opportunities the men have.

What’s the traditional music of Malwai?
There are story-telling traditions, there are musical traditions, but a big issue in Malawi is the scarcity of instruments. Even in the north, Tinariwen who are making good money touring the world, in their region instruments are not necessarily easy to come by. So that’s an element that’s relevant in Malawi, it’s hard for people to carry on certain traditions just for sheer lack of instruments in a lot of cases.

Speaking of Tinariwen, there’s that constant tension between this amazing music and the politics of what they’re actually talking about. When you do stuff like this, you talk about two different things: unrepresented groups and underrepresented music. Not saying you do prioritize one, is there one thing you prioritize?
Yeah, it’s a good question. For me the music has to come first. Has to. Without that, the rest, not that it's meaningless, but the music has to stand on itself. The music has to come first for me. Not that the other elements aren’t important, but the music has to stand on its own. When it doesn’t, I think “Important Music” is counterproductive. It alienates people. I can think of other bands big and small that have amazing politics and can’t write a song to save their lives. Sometimes they have big followings for good reasons, but there’s no sustainability there, and I think it can be counterproductive. So the songs have to stand on their own. One of the things about Tinariwen, and I consciously believe this about them, they should be able to go out on stage anyway they want. They should be able to go out in jeans and t-shirts. That has yet to happen, I’d love for that to happen. It’s also great when Coachella and Bonnaroo have someone like Tinariwen or Omar Souleyman, that’s awesome. But it would be great to see them on the main stage. Not necessarily the biggest stage, but not be relegated to the one two or three “world music” slots.

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