To a listener not familiar with Chichewa, a language found in the southern African sliver-sized nation of Malawi- which is probably everyone who might buy this collection or its Grammy nominated predecessor, I Have No Everything Here - there's nothing to suggest that this is music made by prisoners subjected to wretched living conditions and unquestionably unjust sentences. Yet, one look at the song titles, with somber names such as All is Loss, Ambush of the Slaves, "AIDS has no Cure, and Protect Me, and it becomes clear that a particular set of circumstances guides this collection. Anyone familiar with Michael Stone's Rootsworld review of the aforementioned volume can assume that much of the same can be applied here: there are few notes or explanations. This is music without guidelines, meant to be heard as part of a specific, raw injustice but able to be transportive without a backstory.
And like producer, author, and sound traveler Ian Brennan's fantastic work for the Glitterbeat and IRL labels, he gathers musical gold here. Sister, Take Good Care of Your Husband, written and sung a capella by Elias Chimenya, is heartbreaking, especially when the singer reaches for the falsetto. I Will Not Return to Prison, an acoustic guitar-driven statement of determination, drips with calm, its vocal harmonies spilling over the prison walls and out into the countryside. There are also raw electric ensembles here. Leave My Daughter Alone, has a jagged amplified rhythm that's not quite reggae, a pugnacious bass line that stalks the vocal melody, and a snare drum snap that's simply perfect. Frustratingly, a number of other tracks inexplicably fade off just as they begin to percolate, a shame considering there was no doubt room for more music on the disc.
While purchasing a copy of this may do little to help the people's plight, the notice the project has received has already led to cases be re-examined and prisoners freed. Certainly, the Grammy consideration has proved Brennan's point that urban centers of the West are far from the only places where music worthy of global attention is being produced. - Bruce Miller
Zomba Prison Project (Volume 1)
Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings: 1947-1959
Checkpoint 303: The Iqrit Files
Photos by Marilenna Delli