ZOMBA, Malawi — Old, overcrowded and unsanitary, the maximum-security Zomba prison holds murderers, robbers, rapists — and Grammy-nominated singers.
In a makeshift studio near a carpentry workshop, 14 prisoners and two guards recorded an unusual album of lessons and loss, sin and forgiveness. Now it is going up against the works of well-known performers in the world music category, earning the small, impoverished nation of Malawi its first chance at a Grammy Award, which will be announced Monday night.
“Many people across the world who had never heard of Malawi are now saying, ‘There’s a country called Malawi!’ ” said Chikondi Salanje, 32, who is scheduled to be released in August after serving five years for robbery.
His song, “Listen to Me,” advises children to heed their parents — something, he added, he had failed to do himself.
Produced by Ian Brennan, an American who has wandered the globe in search of original music, the album, “I Have No Everything Here,” has been an unexpected boon for an overlooked nation, and even more so for its penal system, long criticized for its sometimes cruel conditions.
The music, often observations about problems afflicting African societies, also offers insights into the lives of its performers, like the three sisters who sing of the killing that brought them to Zomba to serve life sentences.
“I am alone at the wide river/and I have failed to cross it,” sings the oldest sister. “When I was doing things secretly/I thought that no one was watching me.”
It was seven years ago, in their village in this southern African nation, that the middle sister came home with her 11-year-old daughter from a Pentecostal prayer meeting. Suddenly, she screamed that a demon had taken over her child and started hitting her with firewood.
“She begged us: ‘Help me. If the demon rises up, it will hurt all of us,’ ” the older sister, Rhoda Mtemang’ombe, 44, recalled in an interview in the women’s ward. “I started beating the girl.”
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The younger sister appeared. Then, according to conflicting accounts, she either walked away or grabbed dry grass from a thatch roof to help set the child’s body on fire.
The female section of the prison. The male prisoners received instruments and support from the authorities; the women did not. Joao Silva/The New York Times
“Jealous Neighbor,” written and sung by Elias Chimenya, 40, a convicted murderer with an ethereal voice, tells of the tensions between individual labor and communal spirit in his village. When he enjoyed a good harvest, jealous neighbors invariably asked him for a share. When he refused, they accused him of being selfish. “Who does this man think he is?” they would say to him.
“I sweated for what I had, so they have also to work and sweat to have theirs — that was my song’s advice to those who are jealous,” said Mr. Chimenya, a slight man with an infectious smile. “It’s a big problem, not only in my village but in other villages and towns.”
Mr. Chimenya has been serving a life sentence here since 1998. He was convicted of instigating the killing of an aunt during a family meeting intended to resolve a squabble over land.
One of the two guards, Thomas Binamo, 42, who has worked at the prison for two decades, also wrote about jealousy, as a corrosive and sometimes deadly force in society. His composition, “Please, Don’t Kill My Child,” perhaps the album’s most haunting track, is a plea against a peculiar crime in Malawi: the jealousy-fueled killing of children.
“Some people get jealous and they can think of killing someone’s child without any reason,” Mr. Binamo said. “It is a problem in our communities. People get jealous. Maybe he’s better educated. He’s earning more. He’s doing better.”
“So I’m saying: ‘Don’t kill my child. This child is mine,’ ” he added.
Ian Brennan, center, produced the album by the Zomba prison band that has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the best world music album category. Joao Silva/The New York Times
Mr. Binamo, who had his own band outside prison, started teaching inmates music in 2008. Prison officials bought instruments and created a studio in the men’s workshop area. A band was formed, initially with the purpose of spreading AIDS prevention messages through songs, said Little Dinizulu Mtengano, Malawi’s chief commissioner of prisons, who directly oversaw the Zomba prison at the time.
AIDS remains a problem among the staff and inmates at the Zomba prison, which was built in 1895 during British colonial rule and houses 2,400 prisoners, about triple the facility’s capacity. Malawi’s most hardened criminals are incarcerated here, but there are also many inmates who never received proper legal representation or who were simply lost in the justice system.
“Eighty-five percent of the prisoners are poor and illiterate,” Mr. Mtengano said, adding that many were convicted even though they did not comprehend the proceedings at their trials. Malawi’s main language is Chichewa, but court proceedings are conducted in English, and interpreters are often unavailable, Mr. Mtengano said.
It was in 2013 that Mr. Brennan, the American producer, visited the prison. Mr. Brennan, 49, a producer for three decades, had found musicians and produced albums in Rwanda, South Sudan, Vietnam and Malawi as part of a personal campaign against overly commercialized music.
With his wife, Marilena Delli, a documentary filmmaker, he traveled back roads and listened to local musicians, searching for original music from the margins or, as he said, “voices that are pure in the sense that they are uninfluenced by anything but the voices of their immediate surroundings.”
Mr. Brennan, who is also an expert and author on conflict resolution, gained access to the prison by offering to give classes on the subject to guards and inmates. Beyond the existing band, Mr. Brennan recalled during a return visit here in January, he quickly found talent everywhere, and began recording.
The residential area for the guards and their families at the Zomba prison. Joao Silva/The New York Times
There was Stefano Nyerenda, 30, behind bars since 2009 for robbery. Reflecting on his conviction and the situation in his community, he said he had an insight: Many women worked hard, starting their own businesses, while many men wasted their days drinking beer and playing bawo, a board game.
“It was a big problem in my village,” Mr. Nyerenda said. “That’s why, in my song, I advised that men must work with the women to make our village stronger.”
Written and sung in Chichewa, like nearly all of the album’s songs, Mr. Nyerenda’s “Women Today Take Care of Business” goes: “While women are in salon doing their hair/their husbands are asleep/While women are in the market selling onions and things/their husbands are sleeping. While men are awake, all they know is to play bawo.”
Mr. Brennan went further into the prison, to the small women’s ward, which recently held 35 women and three children. Unlike the men, the women had received no instruments or support from the authorities. None volunteered to sing. They even denied having any songs at all.
A woman named Gladys Zinamo eventually stepped forward.
“We didn’t know what was coming next,” said Ms. Zinamo, now 34. “But I love singing, so I sang.”
Thomas Binamo, playing the guitar, and Elias Chimenya, far right, a convicted murderer, are members of the prison band. Joao Silva/The New York Times
Her song, “Taking My Life,” tells of how thieves took everything in her home after she was sent here in 2010. Ms. Zinamo was convicted of being an accomplice in a robbery at the shop where she worked. Ms. Zinamo, who denied any involvement, was released in 2013.
Other women followed.
The youngest, Fronce Afiki, now 25, had been convicted with her husband of killing a relative’s young son. The child’s body had been found along a river in her village, his neck broken. Ms. Afiki, who said she was innocent, was released in 2014 after serving only three years. Her husband remains incarcerated.
Ms. Afiki composed upbeat songs. In “When They See Me Dance,” she sings of a village tradition according to which the elders impart advice to children when they turn 6.
“The children then dance for the elders,” she said with a smile.
Outside the prison, Ms. Afiki said she now stayed in her home village, a three-hour trip from here by bicycle taxi through mountainous roads. She lives with her daughter and son in a small mud-brick home she has built since leaving prison.
She still sings. In her latest composition, she said, she gives specific advice to the girls in her village: If they have a certain talent, like weaving or making something, they should pursue it instead of falling for a boy. That way, they can become rich.
The village children gather outside her home when she cooks or pounds corn. Or they come after dinner when everyone relaxes before going to sleep.
“I sing that song for the girls,” she said. “They understand.”
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