“I Have No Everything Here” was recorded at Malawi’s Zomba prison and is among the first batch of nominations for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards.
Slotted for Best World Musical Album” alongside musical giants like Angelique Kidjo and Anoushka Shankar, they are Malawi’s first ever Grammy nominee.
The album, recorded in prison by music producer Ian Brennan, captured the attention of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the US who hand out the hotly-contested prize.
Released in January 2015, the album features 16 singer-songwriters in the 20 tracks, 18 of which were written by the prisoners, both male and female.
“It is a great accomplishment,” gushed Brennan in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“I am very happy for the prisoners and quite shocked really,” he said. “The awards have become extremely celebrity-driven, and ironically, the World category in particular has become so predictable – it’s the same names almost every year … so to see a group of unknown individuals get a nomination makes it that much more of an accomplishment.” A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the music will fund legal representation and provide support for the inmates, he said.
The album, in the Chichewa language, combines guitars, solos and softly-pulsing melodies with powerful lyrics.
Brennan and his wife, photographer and documentarian Marilena Delli, have been working with incarcerated people to bring underrepresented voices on the world stage.
A group of men at the prison already had their own band when Brennan arrived, and a prison officer allowed them to practice for a few hours a week. Women did not immediately join up until near the end of Brennan’s time in the prison when one of the women finally stepped up to the mike.
“It was the dam breaking,” he said. “Once one of them stepped forward, they started queuing up. And some of them came back a second or third time. Some of the best songs are from people who claimed they weren’t songwriters or singers.”
Many of the tracks depict the harsh conditions in which the inmates live and the journey that brought them to their incarceration. One song, written and sung by Thomas Binamo, is called, “Please, Don’t Kill my Child.” Another, by Josephine Banda, is titled, “I Kill No More.” And Officer Ines Kaunde wrote one song titled, “I See the Whole World Dying of AIDS.” Brennan says not all the tracks made it on the record but, in total, there were four with the “AIDS” in the title.
“Out of context, ‘I see the Whole World Dying of AIDS,” could seem overstated. But for them, within a country with some of the highest HIV rates in the world, that’s a very real perception,” he says.
It’s highly unlikely that the Zomba Prison Band will be able to attend the 2016 Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles. Though some may be released in the future, most will remain in a place with “no everything.”
A website for the Zomba Prison Project with links to their songs can be found at http://zombaprisonproject.bandcamp.com/