Jailhouse rock, Zomba style, in line for a Grammy - Times LIVE
Fri Apr 28 16:06:01 SAST 2017

Jailhouse rock, Zomba style, in line for a Grammy

AFP | 2016-01-13 07:16:38.0

On vocals is convicted murderer Elias Chimenya, on bass guitar, burglar Stefano Nyerenda and prison guard Thomas Binamo is one of the band's songwriters.

Malawi's Zomba Prison Project band has a unique lineup that could grab global success at the recording industry's prestigious Grammy Awards next month.

Their 20-track record I Have No Everything Here has been nominated in the best world music album category, with the winner to be announced at a gala ceremony in Los Angeles.

Musical talent at the Zomba maximum-security prison was unearthed in 2013 when US producer Ian Brennan spent two weeks working with 60 inmates and guards to make the album.

Six hours of recordings were edited down into the final selection of songs, featuring 16 of the prison musicians, singing mainly in their local Chichewa language.

Elias Chimenya, 46, who is serving a life term for killing a man in a quarrel in the 1980s, wrote and sang the haunting ballad Jealous Neighbour, the album's fifth track.

"I am a reformed person, and music has helped me to be cool and deal with the situation of being incarcerated for life," he said in an interview at the decrepit prison.

"I hope to not die in prison, and instead be released to start a music career outside."

News of the award nomination came as a surprise to inmates.

"We are baffled. We didn't think prisoners could be nominated," said Nyerenda, the 34-year-old guitarist, who expects to be freed next year after serving a 10-year sentence for burglary.

But the Grammy-nominated album also includes other inmates. Half of the songs are by women prisoners held in a separate part of the jail, where they have no instruments except hand drums, buckets and pieces of pipe.

Among the songs on the album, recorded in a makeshift studio are tracks called Last Wishes, I Am Alone and Don't Hate Me.

"The nomination alone has inspired us and already made us famous both in Malawi and abroad," said prison guard Binamo, who wrote lyrics for a song called Please Don't Kill My Child.


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