Prisoners from Malawi are nominated for a Grammy Award

Posted on Dec 9 2015 - 9:01pm by

Among the star-studded list of the 58th annual Grammy Award nominees is a group of prisoners from Malawi.

From the confines of an overcrowded, dilapidated maximum security prison in the city of Zomba, more than three-dozen men and women recorded “I Have No Everything Here,” which was nominated Monday for best world album.

“For a group of unknown individuals to get nominated is shocking,” Ian Brennan, the album’s producer, told the Daily News. “It’s beautiful.”

It’s also the first time anyone from Malawi has been nominated for the prestigious award.

"I Have No Everything Here" by the "Zomba Prison Project" was nominated for best world album in the 58th annual Grammy Awards.Marilena Delli

“I Have No Everything Here” by the “Zomba Prison Project” was nominated for best world album in the 58th annual Grammy Awards.

Brennan, a Grammy Award-winning producer and three-time nominee, spearheaded the bare-bones production in 2013 alongside with his wife, filmmaker Marilena Delli.

“These are live, unvarnished performances,” Brennan said.

From the finger-picked ballad “Please, Don’t Kill My Child” to the daunting hymn “I Am Alone,” the songs are touching, sometimes heartbreaking reflections of the prisoners’ lives.

“One would be hard-pressed to find a song as beautiful as ‘Please, Don’t Kill My Child’ nominated in any Grammy category this year,” Brennan said. “And you would have to dig back pretty deeply into history to find one that is more poignant.”

English is the official language in the southeast African country — a result of British colonial rule — but most of the album is sung in Chichewa.

“I am alone / at the wide river / and I have failed to cross it,” croons a woman in the song “I Am Alone.”

More than 60 male and female inmates helped record over than six hours of music.The final product includes 20 songs featuring 18 musicians.Marilena Delli

More than 60 male and female inmates helped record over than six hours of music.The final product includes 20 songs featuring 18 musicians.

The prisoners ranged in age from their early-20s to late-70s, and most are serving life sentences.

Because some of the men have been there for years, they’ve earned special privileges like playing music. They have instruments, an organized band and even a room to rehearse in, Brennan said.

The women, on the other hand, are kept in a small, mostly outdoor area and their only instruments were buckets used as drums.

The album took 10 days to record but the trip to Zomba Prison had been years in the making, if only in Brennan’s head.

“The idea had been fermenting for a long time,” the 49-year-old explained. “For decades, really.”

Ian Brennan, a Grammy-winning producer and three-time nominee, spearheaded the bare-bones production in 2013 alongside with his wife, filmmaker Marilena Delli.Marilena Delli

Ian Brennan, a Grammy-winning producer and three-time nominee, spearheaded the bare-bones production in 2013 alongside with his wife, filmmaker Marilena Delli.

The prison heads offered him access to the grounds in exchange for training the staff and inmates in violence prevention — a specialty of Brennan’s for more than 20 years.

Although most inmates were skeptical at first, over 60 of them helped record more than six hours of music. At first Brennan wanted to make a double record but managed to whittle the final product down to 20 songs featuring 18 musicians.

The album was released in January 2015.

It’s the first time anyone from Malawi has been nominated for a Grammy Award.Marilena Delli

It’s the first time anyone from Malawi has been nominated for a Grammy Award.

Brennan and his wife haven’t been back to Zomba since 2013. Some of the musicians have been released since, at least one has died.

He knows the prison issued a statement praising the “Zomba Prison Project,” but he hasn’t been able to talk to the men and women whose voices are the backbone of “I Have No Everything Here.”

And the album’s title, Brennan said, came from a note a prisoner serving life snuck to him, pleading for help.

“It really resonated with me,” he said. “And brought me to tears when I reached that line.”

Ribarra@nydailynews.com

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