The Zomba Prison Project is a collection of 20 field recordings made by producer Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, TV on the Radio) and his wife, Italian photographer and filmmaker Marilena Delli, in the notorious maximum-security Zomba Prison in Malawi. The resultant album, I Have No Everything Here on Six Degrees Records, is one of a series of not-for-profit benefit recordings that the married couple has made in locations such as Rwanda, South Sudan, Palestine, Nairobi, and Algeria. The albums raise money for various local causes, one of which is to bring attention to true first world musics. According to Brennan, it is a matter of bringing fairer representation: "It is indefensible that literally hundreds of thousands of musicians from cities like London, L.A., and New York have been heard ad nauseum 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."
Designed in the 19th century to hold 340 people, Zomba Prison holds over 2,000 in the 21st century. Malawi's head of prisons allowed Brennan and Delli access in exchange for offering a series of classes on violence prevention to inmates and guards. They were then embedded within the compound and sworn to secrecy. According to Brennan, "There is a stark difference between the male and female sides of the prison. The men have an organized 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...." The majority of prisoners have been given life sentences for crimes ranging from theft to murder. (The leader of the male group, for example, is imprisoned for the commission of murder during an attempt to make off with another band's equipment.) Here again, the experiences of women and men are quite different. Some women in the facility were imprisoned for nothing more than being accused of witchcraft. Sales from I Have No Everything Here by the Zomba Prison Project have resulted in raising money to reopen cases: three of the women involved have gained release from their sentences, and three other cases were put under active review. ~ Thom Jurek