Malawi′s Zomba prison band up for Grammy glory | Africa | DW | 15.02.2016
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Malawi's Zomba prison band up for Grammy glory

As the music industry prepares to recognize its top artists at the Grammys, an unlikely line-up of convicted criminals is tipped to take home the recording industry’s most prestigious prize.

Sung over simple guitar chords, the temperate vocals of a group of maximum security prisoners have earned Malawi its first ever Grammy nomination.

Convicted murderer Elias Chimenya on bass guitar, burglar Stefano Nyerenda, and prison guard Thomas Binamo, one of the band's songwriters, are just some of the 60 prisoners who make up Malawi's Zomba Prison Project band, which has been nominated for the Grammy awards under the best world music album category.

"I Have No Everything Here," a 20-track EP performed by prisoners in Malawi's overcrowded maximum-security Zomba Prison, was recorded during recording sessions in a makeshift studio next to a noisy carpentry workshop at the center.

Six hours of recorded music were edited back to the final tracks on the album, which feature 16 of the prisons' musicians. Eighteen of the disc's 20 songs are sung in the local Chichewa language.

Should the band take home Monday's award at the gala ceremony in Los Angeles, the recognition will not lead them to a world-touring music career. Many of the band members are seeing out life sentences.

That has not stopped the outside world wanting more of the inmates, however.

Members of the Zomba Prison Project, who lack contact to the outside world, heard about their Grammy nomination from charity workers and prison officials two years after they recorded their songs.

"We are baffled, because we didn't expect prisoners could be nominated," said Nyerenda, the group's 34-year-old guitarist, who expects to be released next year after serving a 10-year sentence for burglary.

Zomba Prison Project Gefängnisband

No one from the jail is expected to attend the February 15 award ceremony in Los Angeles

Ian Brennan, the album's producer and a 2012 Grammy award winner in his own right, told the Associated Press news agency in a telephone interview that he was surprised that his "massive, money-losing labor of love" had gained attention on the world music stage.

Music is a tool for empathy, added Brennan, who has also worked for the past 20 years in psychiatric facilities where he became an expert in violence prevention.

Brenann has also been forced to defend the album, though, with critics saying it celebrated criminals.

"This is not about glorifying anyone - it is about humanizing, and everyone should be humanized," he said. "Some of these prisoners have been proved innocent and released. Others are caught up in bureaucracy for years. But yes, some people are in for life, for murder."

Striking a deal with Malawian detention officials, Brennan hosted workshops on conflict prevention with detainees for two weeks in 2013 while being given the opportunity to record their hymns and traditional songs.

All inmates who contributed to the project were given a monetary payment, clothing and other food and basic supplies, he said. Profits from the sale of the EP will be shared amongst the participants, including those who have been released.

'Jealous Neighbour'

Chimenya, a 46-year-old serving a life term for murdering a man in the 1980s, wrote and performed the haunting ballad "Jealous Neighbour."

"I am a reformed person, and music has helped me to be cool and deal with the situation of being incarcerated for life," he told the AFP news agency at the prison.

"[But] I hope to not die in prison, and instead to be released to take up a music career outside."

Zomba Prison Project Gefängnisband

None of the band members reportedly knew what a Grammy was

Brennan added that, before the group's big break, the men's cellblock at the prison had a rather successful choir that toured other penitentiaries with a few donated instruments, spreading messages of HIV prevention.

The women's side of the prison, however, only had a few regular choir participants, who made do with buckets, plastic piping and traditional drums for backing music.

Zomba Prison Project Gefängnisband Album Cover CD I Have No Everything Here

All participants will share the profits made from the sale of the EP

The women, Brennan added, were hesitant about performing - until inmate Gladis Zinamo began singing "Share with the earth your happiness." She also sang the opening sounds to the track "Don't Hate Me." Her participation encouraged other women in the prison to come forward and participate. The female inmates ended up singing more than half the album.

Inspiring others

Binamo, the prison guard who wrote the lyrics for "Please. Don't Kill my Child," said that "The [Grammy] nomination alone has inspired us and already made us famous both in Malawi and abroad."

"Winning an award will be the icing on the cake," he added, as prisoners rehearsed a new song in the makeshift studio under a single light bulb.

"We teach vocals, keyboard, drums and guitar until they become musicians. Playing music can bring relief to them," Binamo added.

Producer Ian Brennan, who has worked regularly in US prisons, has also been responsible for launching the careers of Rwanda's The Good Ones, South Sudan's Wayo: Trance Percussion Masters and the Malawi Mouse Boys, a gospel group of local men who used to make a small living selling roasted mice on sticks as roadside snacks.

South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo are also up for nomination in best world music album category.

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