Arts, Culture & Media

'I Have No Everything Here.' From an overcrowded prison in Malawi, moving music

What is it about prisons and music? There's Johnny Cash and his gigs at San Quentin and Folsom back in the 1960s. There's also Eddie Palmieri and his funk outfit, Harlem River Drive, performing at Sing Sing in '71.

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But those are free men making music. Recordings of inmates making music are a different proposition. But they do exist, and one of them is new recording produced at the Zomba Maximum Security Prison in Malawi. 

Ian Brennan is the music producer of the Zomba Prison Project, which recorded both male and female inmates serving sentences there.

The prison itself was built in the 19th century. It was designed to hold 340 people, but today it holds over 2,000. Brennan says there's little electricity or running water, and food shortages happen every so often. There's also a problem with rats. 

The majority of the inmates are men, but there are about 50 to 100 women in separate quarters. Some women even have their infants and small children with them. All of the inmates are serving time for murder, robbery or homosexuality. Many of the woman are also being held for "witchcraft."

Brennan first entered Zomba in 2013. He wasn't sure he'd be allowed access to record, but after meeting with the head of the prison, Brennan and his wife, Marilena Delli, were allowed to set up a small mobile recording studio. There were always guards present, and some eventually even joined in on the recording.  

All the songs were written by the inmates, and many have tellingly personal titles like: "Give Me Back My Child," "I See the Whole World Dying of AIDS" and "Don't Hate Me." Even the sub-title of the CD tells a story: "I Have No Everything Here."

Brennan says that three women have been released since the recordings were made, and three more are under review. He says it's a long bureaucratic process with "files being lost, holidays, shut-downs and strikes," but it's his hope that more cases will be heard and that the inmates' music will "stand on its own."