The Zomba Prison Project

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You men have no pity,
You are killing my son,
But brothers what has he done wrong?
You are killing my son

– Please, Don’t Kill My Child (Track 3)

The Zomba Prison Project teaches us that the gift of song is not limited to polished, Hollywood pop stars. The Zomba Prison Project reminds us that art knows no bounds.

Over the past two years, sixteen singer-songwriters have gathered in Zomba, Malawi’s over-crowded maximum-security prison, to curate two compilation albums titled I Have No Everything Here and I Will Not Stop Singing. These are a collection of various musical recordings ranging from full-length songs backed by a full band, to simple Acappella interludes. The first album features twenty beautifully unrefined tracks about loss, grief, love, and suffering, offering moments of profound insight into the harsh realities of prison life.

The majority of both albums were recorded outdoors and in Chichewa, the local language of Zomba. The recordings took ten days to complete and were made via a battery-operated portable studio, which meant the use of overdubs and special effects weren’t feasible. This is, however, in keeping with the tone of the album, as many of the tracks are sustained by simple polyrhythmic handclapping and dexterous basslines. The project took off in 2013 when American producer Ian Brennan and documentary filmmaker Marilena Delli traveled to Zomba to begin recording. Over six hours of footage were documented with the participation of sixty inmates, including some of the prison guards.

The first of two albums, I Have No Everything Here, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best World Music category, and the group’s sophomore album titled I Will Not Stop Singing covers similar themes over fourteen tracks. Similar to their debut album, the second collection titled I Will Not Stop Singing features brief but powerful tracks like “AIDS Has No Cure,” speaking to the nature of illness and death behind over-crowded prison walls. The third track on I Will Not Stop Singing sends an explicit message when Thomas Binamo sings, “What are you doing there in that graveyard that I cannot see? Why did you suddenly leave me? I wanted to let you know, that our daughters are all doing fine.”

Both albums are strikingly sincere and lay bare the lives and thoughts of men and women with profound stories to tell. Unfortunately, many of the tracks are just short fragments of songs that fade into mere interludes, most of which are sung by women. This tells us that there is far more to this music than we get to hear, and it frustrates. This also tells us that the male prisoners bear the better end of the musical deal, with access to both longer recording sessions and better equipment like guitars and drums. However, some of the women’s hymns such as “Prison of Sinners” sung by Elube Chalema, are beautiful compositions and add to the authenticity of the project as we remind ourselves that there is often beauty in simplicity when it comes to Acappella jail music. This isn’t the first time, however, that we have been given the gift of what the musical world calls “jail music”. The Zomba Prison Project joins the beautiful body of work that includes artists like the Sex Pistols, Leadbelly, B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, and Johnny Cash, and tells us that no song is less than crucial when it’s written, composed, and performed in such a unique environment.

Songs like “Sharing Joy” from I Will Not Stop Singing Here define this album as one of perseverance. In a place that is typically joyless and often life threatening, the prisoners remind us of their profound strength and allow us the position of quiet observer as they sing about a world that nobody else can. As they reveal their truths to share with the world, and as they manage to unite two worlds through the gift of song.

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Listen to Zomba Prison Project’s masterpiece in its brilliant entirety on YouTube or Spotify.

Online Writer, Jenna Chasse