Freedom’s voice rings out from a Malawi jail

I HAVE NO EVERYTHING HERE, Zomba Prison Project (Six Degree Records)

The concept of a “prison album” was made popular by Johnny Cash, who travelled across the United States playing gigs in prisons throughout his career. At San Quentin it was particularly riotous: “I hate every brick of you,” Cash sang to a clapping, whooping and tankard-banging crowd. And yet the gigs continued despite his fearless cheek. Even in a high-security state prison, it seems, freedom of speech prevails.

It’s probably fair to say that the meanest prison in the US does not come close to Malawi’s maximum-security Zomba Central Prison. This crumbling brick structure was built in the 19th century to hold 340 people – today it houses over 2?000 prisoners. Many of the guards also live on the grounds, adding to the sweaty claustrophobia. 

This is where in the summer of 2013, after much travelling, Ian Brennan, the Grammy award-winning producer of Tinariwen and Malawi Mouse Boys fame, chose to record a collection of 60 musicians who call themselves the Zomba Prison Project. Brennan’s wife, the photographer and filmmaker Marilena Delli, captured everything with raw beauty.

In contrast to the wild anger of Cash’s legendary recordings, every track on I Have No Every­thing Here has a tragic sadness that pulls the listener directly into the minds of the prisoners. Perhaps wasting energy through anger or having the strength to rebel are luxuries in Zomba. 

The 20-track album has a mixture of male and female voices. Genders are of course separated in the prison, but the quick turn around of musicians – some tracks fall short of a minute – give it the intimate feel of an open-mic night. Guitar strings twang out of key, but this only adds to a grassroots authenticity.

There is a closeness here that makes the listener feel privileged; as is typical of Brennan’s projects, nothing is staged. Birds tweet in the background to I Am Alone, a painful reminder that freedom is only a stone’s throw away.

Some members are in their early 20s, while a few others have reached more than 60 – an impressive feat considering the life expectancy in Malawi remains about half that of a typical Western country. Some of the musicians have been given life sentences for murder, but the majority are serving time for theft or robbery.

In a brutal example of how intertwined life is with music, the leader of the men’s group is serving a life sentence for a murder that occurred when he and his gang attempted to steal equipment from another band.

But “prisoner” seems an awful label to put on the female musicians, many of whom stand accused of the nonexistent crime of witchcraft.

“There is a stark difference between the male and female sides of the prison,” says Brennan. “The men have an organised 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. In fact, without much encouragement, the women stepped forward one by one with stunningly personal tunes like I Kill No More.”

As a direct result of this prison album, three of the women involved have gained release from witchcraft sentences. The hope that these efforts will be ongoing is a very real one, and another three cases are under review thanks to funds raised from the project.

The soaring electric soukous guitar on tracks such as The Flood may be a fast-track route to the heart strings, but perhaps hope, not sadness, will be Zomba Prison Project’s lasting emotion. 

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Clyde Macfarlane
Music and travel writer @GuardianTravel, @SonglinesMag, @MailandGuardian and @TheQuietus. New poetry book out: Across New Zealand in 140 Hitches Clyde Macfarlane has over 342 followers on Twitter.

The case against Floyd Shivambu

The flow of money from VBS Bank would seem to suggest that the EFF’s second-in-command was an ultimate beneficiary of proceeds of a crime

Cabinet reshuffle rumours: Unlikely to happen any time soon, but…

Persistent rumours of a cabinet reshuffle may be jumping the gun, but they do reflect the political realignment taking place within the ANC

Gauteng responds to grave concern

The news of Gauteng’s grave site preparations raised alarm about the expected number of Covid-19-related deaths in the province

Nigeria’s anti-corruption boss arrested for corruption

Ibrahim Magu’s arrest by the secret police was a surprise — but also not surprising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday