Ian Brennan wanted to make a record with music performed by prisoners. He’s a Grammy-winning record producer who likes to bring attention to the voices of people who aren’t usually heard.
So when he heard that a prison in Malawi had a band, off he went to the maximum security facility. “We just took the leap of faith and went down there,” says Brennan, a California native who has worked with artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bill Frisell and who now lives in Italy.
Brennan first visited the prison on a Sunday, and “it was incredible how much music was going on, different choirs everywhere,” he remembers. That was in August 2013. He went on to record songs sung by different inmates, who were serving time for everything from burglary to murder.
Released in January 2015, the album “I Have No Everything Here” earned a Grammy nomination in the world music category. (Angelique Kidjo won the award.)
Now the musicians have a second album: “I Will Not Stop Singing,” released in September.
We talked to Brennan about the music made in Zomba Prison.
What does music mean to the prisoners?
Chikondi Salanje — he was in for burglary — said it’s a form of freedom [for prisoners] to be able to play music, to almost teleport themselves to somewhere better.
I’m sure it’s a bit of a risk to record music by people who aren’t professionals.
We don’t put out everything we record. The songs and musicians have to stand on their own. [The music] has to be striking, to move something in you. It’s almost a disservice to put out a record if the songs don’t stand on their own.
What made you decide to do a second album with the Zomba musicians?
After the Grammy nomination, the logical question from the record label was: “Do you want to do another record?” My answer was, “No.” I don’t want to do things for commercial reasons. But then we went back to the prison in May, and Thomas Binamo played a song about the loss of his wife called “I Will Never Stop Grieving For You, My Wife.” And I felt, “I have to put this out.” I felt there was no choice.” It’s hard for me to imagine somebody not being affected by that song. It’s a ballad. It’s beautiful.
Who is Binamo?
He’s a guard. The guards and prisoners dance together, smoke cigarettes together, play board games together.
What did his wife die of?
I don’t know. It’s not uncommon to have fairly sudden death there.
Do you pay the prisoners for their music?
I made sure every person was paid in advance, even before we knew if there would be a record. It gets put into accounts for them to get when they’re released from prison. We’ve asked some of the guys that were out, “Did they give you any money when you left.” They were, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Can I ask how much you paid them?
It’s modest. We don’t talk about the money, any more than I would about money for one of the bands I work with in America or in any place.
Has the record sold well?
It’s sold something like 2,200 copies through June. That’s a modest amount. It has not made back the money [it took to produce it]. But for a world music record, it’s not horrible. I once did a record that I thought was good and that got some press — I won’t say which one — and it sold 83 copies.
The TV show 60 Minutes did a story about the Zomba prison project last week. One prisoner shyly asked if there was money in the Grammy award. What does this whole experience mean to the prisoners?
One thing a lot of them have expressed to me: It’s given them confidence that their music has been heard beyond the walls of the prison. To find that anyone cared even one foot beyond the walls — and in America and around the world — is almost inconceivable. Hopefully, that confidence has value.