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Zomba Prison Project: Malawi prisoners score Grammy nomination and might not even know it yet

It is unlikely that any of the prisoners will be granted approval to attend the ceremony 

Jess Denham
Tuesday 15 December 2015 15:46 GMT
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A prisoner records music for Zomba Prison Project's album I Have No Everything Here
A prisoner records music for Zomba Prison Project's album I Have No Everything Here (Zomba Prison Project)

Sixteen inmates from Malawi’s maximum security prison have become this year’s unlikeliest Grammy nominees, and they might not even know it.

The band, many of whom are serving life sentences for murder, are known as Zomba Prison Project after the city where their jail is located. They wrote and recorded an album, I Have No Everything Here, in the summer of 2013 before releasing it last January, with songs including the deeply personal likes of “Don’t Hate Me”, “Prison of Sinners”, “I See the Whole World Dying of AIDS” and “Please, Don’t Kill My Child”.

Last Monday saw ZPP become the first Malawian musicians to be nominated at America’s biggest music awards, shortlisted for Best World Music Album. But their producer, Grammy winner Ian Brennan, told the Guardian that he does not believe any of the group know about the achievement yet as all communication must pass through local NGOs or the prison commissioner first.

Brennan was allowed access to the inmates after meeting with the head of the prison. It was agreed that he could set up a small mobile studio with his wife, Italian photographer and filmmaker Marilena Delli, in return for giving classes on violence prevention.

The couple had previously travelled to Nairobi, Rwanda, Palestine, South Sudan and Algeria among other countries, producing multiple groundbreaking albums. They were sworn to secrecy and forbidden to take photos in certain areas of the prison, according to ZPP’s Facebook page.

“There is a stark difference between the male and female sides of the prison,” Brennan said. “The men have an organized band and were very particular about how they were to be recorded.

“The women on the other hand [many of whom are held for ‘witchcraft’] 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’.”

(Zomba Prison Project/Six Degrees Records)

Music fans can listen to and buy Zomba Prison Project’s album here. The funds raised so far have helped three women gain release, with another three cases currently under review. Brennan hopes that more prisoners will be advocated for as awareness surrounding Zomba Prison Project grows.

“Music is universal,” he said. “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.

“It is indefensible that literally hundreds of thousands of musicians from cities like London, LA and New York have been heard ad nauseam for decades, while not a single record has ever even been released internationally from entire countries composed of millions of citizens and that have been rendered so invisible that the majority of people on the planet would have a hard time even locating them on a map.”

The 2016 Grammys take place in Los Angeles on 15 February, where ZPP will compete against Anoushka Shankar’s Home, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Music From Inala, Angelique Kidjo’s Sings and Gilberto Gil’s Gilbertos Samba Ao Vivo. It is unlikely that any prisoners will be allowed to attend the star-studded event.

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