07 March 2018

Introducing: Zomba Prison Project

posted by: Lydia New Music Daily

Hello, strangers! It has been a minute since I last posted,┬ábut in celebration of Sunset coming back from being down for a few weeks and [gasp!] finally being mobile friendly (I beg you, disregard the fact that I work in digital media and have had a non-mobile friendly website for the past 9 years), I am back! I am committing to writing a longer piece soon about where I’ve been, what I’ve gotten into, my thoughts on life, all that. But for now, I wanted to get back to my roots of introducing you to some music that’s moving me at the moment.

While I was out on a run this morning listening to a 60 Minutes Podcast (yes, I am old, and yes, I admit to listening to podcasts rather than music as I run now; again, more on that later when I share some thoughts on life), I was introduced to the Zomba Prison Project. Before continuing to read this, I recommend pressing play on the Spotify player below to get a taste of what this group sounds like. I was immediately captivated by the familiarity of the instrumentals and — despite my inability to understand one word — the soft nature of the vocals. Sure, the song titles of some tracks are a bit jarring, but without knowing anything more than what the music sounds like, I’d have had no idea what I was about to find out: this entire album is written and performed by a prisoners at a maximum security prison in Malawi.

The album was recorded and produced by Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan and his wife, who set out to travel the world in pursuit of talented artists. If I was a betting woman, I’d put my money on the fact that they were pleasantly surprised when they stumbled across the talent they found at Zomba Prison. Built in the 19th century and designed to hold 340 people, the prison is home to over two thousand Malawian prisoners, most of whom have been given life sentences.

When invited to create music, one woman volunteered and sang a song that displayed vulnerability and sadness of her situation. Following her lead, the floodgates opened, and many other prisoners volunteered to tell their stories via song. What resulted is a collection of stories I cannot translate, but that one can hear the beauty and a mix of sadness and hope in. As mentioned in 60 Minutes, these prisoners turn to music to find an escape, but as soon as the music stops, a harsh reality sets in.

In 2016, this album was nominated for a Grammy for Best World Music Album. While it didn’t win, the inmates at the Zomba Prison were given a cause for celebration. And if you allow yourself to let go of preconceived notions and recognize music for what it is — a universal language of unity — that’s a pretty beautiful thing.

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