Malawi music behind bars and gets Grammy Awards nommination

Men and women unprotected and crowded under the hot sun. The barren stone floor on which they sit is part of the Central Prison of Malawi.

Zomba Prison Project nominated for the Grammys.

Zomba Prison Project nominated for the Grammys.

Malawi maximum security prison musicians lock down Grammy nomination

Malawi maximum security prison musicians lock down Grammy nomination

"I Have No Everything Here" by the "Zomba Prison Project" was nominated for best world album in the 58th annual Grammy Awards

“I Have No Everything Here” by the “Zomba Prison Project” was nominated for best world album in the 58th annual Grammy Awards

In Zomba, an extraordinary and impressive album with musical documents about the unspeakable conditions of the prison under which its occupants have to live, arose.

The only public awareness Malawi seems to get is when Madonna decides to adopt another child.

But there are more and much more useful reasons to look after this country. For example, the inhumanity of Malawi’s prisons is a shame that hides in plain sight.

In the summer of 2013, Grammy-winning producer, Ian Brennan and his wife, Italian photographer and filmmaker, Marilena Delli, travelled to Malawi to document and record the music of prisoners in Zomba.

The Zomba Central Prison was built in 1935 and is the only maximum-security prison in the country, holding male and female prisoners. Originally built for 340 inmates, it houses more than 2 000 people–next to the shortage of space it offers a conducive environment for the rapid spread of HIV and Aids and tuberculosis. Plus, many of the guards also live on the grounds, just outside the walls.

What do you have to do to get jailed in here? The men are often charged with felonies such as theft or manslaughter, but many of them have never been to court. One reason for that: there is no transport from the prison to the court. Meanwhile, many of the women are held for witchcraft, with their only crime having been being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Brennan named the collection of the songs that he has recorded in the prison Zomba Prison Project. The resulting album is called I Have No Everything Here. These songs are direct, blunt: they tell stories of crime, sinners and sometimes hope.

On Monday, the album was nominated for the Best World Album category in the Grammy Awards, the biggest music awards in the world.

“It is shocking, but in a good way. The nominations have become increasingly celebrity driven. Many of the same names appear every year. The other four records nominated this year are by artists that are very famous in World Music and have roots going back to the 1970s and 1980s, and even the 1960s. For an unknown group to accomplish this is almost unprecedented.

“As the first Malawians ever to receive a Grammy nomination, this is something that all of Malawi can be very proud of. The fact is that very few countries in Africa—aside from the ones with very large populations such as Mali, South Africa, and Nigeria—have ever received even a single nomination. And in all of far east Asia, there has only been one nomination received for popular music ever,” Brennan said.

He added: “It would be so magnificent if they were blessed with the award. But the nomination itself is already such a meaningful tribute to the prison and the prisoners, and the talents and spirituality— what we often call “soul” in America— of the diverse individuals there. There is a wealth of talent there.”

Explaining the group’s structure, Brennan noted that there is a stark difference between the male and female sides of the prison.

“The men have an organised 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.

The songs were partially recorded directly in the prisoner’s cells, with permission by the prison authorities, who showed up open and generous in exchange for anti-violence seminars offered by Brennan and his wife Marilena Delli. Over five dozen people were recorded for the Zomba Prison Project sessions, totalling more than six hours of music in a multi-generational affair with some members as young as their early twenties, while a few select others have reached more than sixty years of age (the latter being a very advanced number since the life expectancy in Malawi remains about half of what is found in the Western world).

Brennan is no stranger when it comes to exceptional music projects. The restless US-American producer zomba-prisondraw already international attention by his work with the legendary Tuareg-Formation ‘Tinariwen’ from Mali.

But Brennan wants his Malawi project not only reflect the everyday life behind bars and give an insight into a carefully cordoned microcosm. The proceeds from the album sales shall enable some prisoners to appeal against their detention.

Through the Zomba Prison project, three of the women involved have gained release from their sentences. And three other cases are now actively under review due to the funds that have been raised.

“Music is universal. It exists everywhere and is a necessity for survival spiritually. Our hope is to help tip the scales, in the most minuscule way, back to fairer representation,” so Brennan.—Fair World

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Timvere kaye nyimbozo kaya. Inu a nyasa muike nyimbo papage yi tiimvere tisanapeleke maganizo athu.

Keen Observer

Congratulations guys no matter what you did but the fact remains you’re our brothers & sisters that will never change. Congrats & all the best.

big fan



Anthu amenewa anamangidwa pazifukwa nyimbo zao ndilibe nazo ntchito.


I come I have never heard their music. I am sure most Malawians haven’t as well.


Up on the same level of Black Mambazo, from prison to grammy’s thats Great story.

another thought

Speechless but proud of this

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