I remember driving past Zomba Prison many times, back in the early 1990s when I was living in Malawi, and Kamuzu Banda was President.
If I happened to be sharing a ride with a Malawian, they would invariably glance at the wire fences and the watch towers, shake their heads and make that sound that is a mixture of fear, horror and sadness and look away. The sound needed no words and, anyway, in the Banda years, no words were allowed. But I knew from the few who dared speak, quietly, that it was one of Malawi’s most notorious prisons, a place you’d never want to be.
And probably one of the coldest too. I remember the biting cold of Zomba, sitting 1,800 meters up, framed by majestic pine trees that rose up the mountain and disappeared into the mist way above, its bustling market – and the fearsome prison.
But something different emerged from Zomba in 2016 – a really good music album made by 60 women and men inmates at Zomba Prison! It was a collaboration with American music producer Ian Brennan and his filmmaker wife Marilena Delli. Brennan and Delli are on a mission to find and shine a light on world music that is so seldom heard.
Malawi isn’t exactly renowned for music but this album is so good that it was nominated for a Grammy Award under the world music category. The lyrics are mostly in Chichewa, written by the singers themselves – and the guards – accompanied by basic, often homemade, instruments. The titles are as brilliant as they are funny, and painful and telling of the lives, hopes and fears of the 60 women and men musicians.