Glorious songs from behind bars in Malawi

Producer Ian Brennan's latest project provides an intriguing glimpse inside Malawi’s Zomba Central Prison

Back in 1933, blues singer Lead Belly was in the middle of a five- to 10-year prison stretch for assault with intent to kill. When musicologists and folk music collectors John and Alan Lomax visited the Angola State Prison in Louisiana that summer with their recorder from the Library of Congress, they discovered Lead Belly and the rest is history.

It’s not the only time prisons have played a role when it comes to music. Be it the Johnny Cash’s recordings at Folsom and San Quentin prisons, Billy Bragg’s Jail Guitar Doors’ initiative or the many times singers have ended up jailed for various misdemeanors, prisons and music have come together many times.

Experienced and well-travelled music producer Ian Brennan is the latest to find music behind bars. In his case, it was Malawi’s Zomba Central Prison (pictured) which was the catalyst for this project.

The maximum security jail is overcrowded (2,000 people in a building designed to hold 340), many inmates are held for years before trial and harsh, gruesome conditions are rife.


Brennan and Italian film-maker Marilena Delli visited the prison in 2013 to record and document the songs of the inmates. The result is the Zomba Prison Project album I Have No Everything Here, which has just been released by Six Degrees Music. Featuring 16 singer-songwriters and 20 tracks, the album is an intriguing, moving and powerful demonstration of the creative life which goes on behind locked doors.