ZOMBA: On vocals: convicted murderer Elias Chimenya, on bass guitar: burglar Stefano Nyerenda, and prison guard Thomas Binamo is one of the band’s songwriters.
Malawi’s Zomba Prison Project band has a unique line-up that could grab global success at the recording industry’s prestigious Grammy Awards next month.
Their 20-track record “I Have No Everything Here” has been nominated in the Best World Music Album category, with the winner to be announced at a gala ceremony in Los Angeles.
Musical talent at the Zomba maximum-security prison was unearthed in 2013 when US producer Ian Brennan spent two weeks working with 60 inmates and guards to make the album.
Six hours of recordings were edited down into the final selection of songs, featuring 16 of the prison’s musicians, singing mainly in the local Chichewa language.
Elias Chimenya, 46, who is serving a life term for killing a man in a quarrel in the 1980s, wrote and sang the haunting ballad “Jealous Neighbor”, the album’s fifth track.
“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 AFP at the decrepit prison in the poor southern African nation.
“(But) I hope to not die in prison, and instead to be released to take up a music career outside.”
– ‘Already made us famous’ –
More than two years after the recording sessions, news of the award nomination came as a surprise to inmates.
“We are baffled because we didn’t expect prisoners could be nominated,” said Nyerenda, the 34-year-old guitarist, who expects to be freed next year after serving a 10-year sentence for house burglary.
The prison already had an all-male band that tours local schools to spread HIV prevention messages.
But the Grammy-nominated album includes other inmates — and half the songs are by women prisoners living in a separate part of the jail where they have no instruments except hand drums, buckets and pieces of pipe.
Among the songs on the album, which was recorded in a makeshift studio next to a noisy carpentry workshop, are tracks called “Last Wishes”, “I Am Alone” and “Don’t Hate Me”.
“The nomination alone has inspired us and already made us famous both in Malawi and abroad,” said Binamo, the prison guard who wrote the lyrics for a song called “Please. Don’t Kill My Child.”
“Winning an award will be the icing on the cake,” he added, as band members wearing white prison uniforms rehearsed a new song in the bare studio under a single light bulb.
“We teach vocals, keyboard, drums and guitar until they become musicians. Playing music can bring relief to them,” Binawo said.
“Many people have a negative attitude towards the prison authorities. They think we only punish convicts.”
Brennan, who has worked regularly in US prisons, said he was amazed by how music sessions in the Zomba jail “did not have any rigid boundary between guards and prisoners.”
“I was struck by how the voices are unique, unaffected and direct,” he added.
Brennan also defended the album, which was released last year, against accusations that 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.”
– ‘What’s a Grammy?’ –
Brennan said the prison, built in the 1930s, was in poor repair but that the prisoners appeared to be relatively well-treated.
“Considering the tremendous shortage of resources, I would say prison officials do make an effort to rehabilitate prisoners and provide decent conditions,” he told AFP.
“It is an incredible thing that they were nominated.”
The prisoners were paid a small fee for the recording, and any profits will be shared among them — including several who have since been released.
“When I heard the news, I said, ‘What is a Grammy?'” recalled Little Dinizulu Mtengano, acting chief commissioner of prisons in Malawi.
“Straight from my lunch, I went to the prison to break it to them. They were surprised, but some knew what the Grammys were.”
No one from the jail is expected to attend the award ceremony on February 15.
Also competing in their category are albums by South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Indian sitar musician Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of the late sitar maestro Ravi Shankar.
Another of the prisoner performers, Chikondi Salanje, a convicted thief who sings the album’s opening track, said the nomination led him to reflect on his time in jail.
“This is the place where I discovered my potential,” he said. “I always tell myself that if I were outside, I would have been killed or faced something terrible.
“But I am glad to be part of the people that have put Malawi on the map.”