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Q&A with Ian Brennan (And Why Maybe You Should Be Rooting for Zomba Prison Project at the Grammy’s?)

Leah Gillis | The Africa Channel   in  ·
February 12, 2016

It’s common knowledge that the music business can be super shady and shallow. Sex, drugs and Rock n’ Roll anyone? Sunset Boulevard is riddled with the carnage of abused musicians, which is what has made discovering Oakland-born Ian Brennan – with four Grammy nominated albums and one win  – such a pleasure.

Ian Brennan is a real deal person. He’s a do-gooder, a globe-travelling producer and a conflict resolver, with a sense of humor. Oh, and he cares, deeply, for his music and the men and women he works. Which is how his latest album, the critically acclaimed Zomba Prison Project came to be made and into the playlists of people the world over.

On his website, in his interviews and in our exchanges, it’s clear Brennan knows that everyone has a story to tell and believes it’s bullsh*t that some never have access to be heard. So he goes out and does something about it, and particularly with Africans. It’s the kind of work done with the care and conscience of someone that has been through it and wants to make the world a better place.

Like I said, the real deal.

And lucky us, for we get to enjoy the fruits of his labor.



While working with names like Flea, Lucinda Williams and others (his website is ridiculously impressive), he goes out to find the music makers that no one is looking for, and he mines gold. Malawi has been a particular area of interest for Brennan, and he has an upcoming work with Malawi Mouse Boys –

However rather than continue to get in the way of his amazing words (because of course he writes books as well), I sent him some questions about the process of finding and molding the talents on Zomba Prison Project, nominated for a Grammy on Monday’s Show. And kindly, he answered away.

I’m pretty obsessed with his work and method of creation, and am rooting for his work at the Grammys. And I bet you will be too. #goodpeopleexisteveninthemusicbiz


Q@A Ian Brennan

TAC: How did you become “some record producer,” as it humorously says on your website. Why?

IB: I started playing music when i was six. i was convinced it was all i wanted to do. from the beginning, i knew that being part of the process was far more important to me than who was credited.


TAC: How did you hear about Zomba Prison?

IB: we sought it out. the idea of doing a record in a prison had been on the backburner for decades. in fact, i had one project with a big star at an American prison that fell through at the last minute. with Zomba, we had the good fortune of the Prison Fellowship helping make the initial introductions.

TAC:  You’ve worked with Lucinda Williams and people from Wilco, Los Lobos and Sleater-Kinney. To be blunt, how did you decide to do this album in Malawi with murderers? And why?

IB: we are interested in helping give a mcircophone to the underheard and underrepresented. no one is more ignored, censored or maligned than prisoners, no matter what the nation. and it is important to bear in mind, that among thsoe imprisoned, some are innocent.


TAC:  You work and teach in conflict resolution, writing books on the subject. How does that passion meld with music?

IB: to me it’s all about communication. the more we listen to each other, the greater the chance for peace.

TAC:  “The battle for democracy in the arts” is the title of one of your books. Who is battling, where is it happening and what is the battle for?

IB: the battle is for equity. certain cultures and classes dominate disporportionately. not enough people are battling. they accept the media as is and are passive to the process. the rebellion need not be violent, only that our attention should shift elsewhere, away from what the corporations attempt to pawn off as “the best”.

TAC: When did you know you were making something special? Was there a moment while recording and/or in the studio?

IB: over 60 people were involved and it resulted in over 6 hours of music. there were many a ha moments. among those was “Please Don’t Kill My Child”, which was done as an afterthought and with reluctance. and it is as great a ballad as can be. once the first notes sounded, every one present held their breath, just hoping that nothing would interfere with the next few precious minutes.

TAC:  You recorded it in 2013 and it came out in 2015, why did it take 2 years?

IB: it took over a year to find a record label willing to release the album. international releases that are not in English or Spanish, are almost the exemplification of non-commercial.

TAC: “Music and other forms of art are by far the most effective kind of social-work that exists. A single, nameless one-hit wonder brings more comfort to the world than almost any single psychologist can hope to in a lifetime.” –Ian Brennan You have this quote on your site, but I wonder, does it apply to the musicians as well? Have you found it to be true for you in your life? How so?

IB: songs cannot save you from a bullet, but they can certainly heal. the best singers help us to identify what we feel, experience it more deeply, and open up new world’s to listeners.


TAC: How did you find out about your latest Grammy nom? What was your reaction?

IB: i saw it online. they were the last ones listed out of the five nominees. the other four i had predicted— the final one, i wasn’t even considering who it be. it was shocking.

TAC: How did you tell the musicians?

IB: we wrote the prison and the NGOS and also called one of our contacts there, that had helped us prior, during, and since the recording.

TAC:  Do you have contact with them still?

IB: yes, we visited the prison in January. it was a great experience to see many of them again. it was particularly beautiful to spend a little time outside the prison with four of them who have been released. sadly, one of the women on the record perished from illness in the prison since the time of the recording. and she was only 36 years old.

TAC:  Any plans for a follow up album with them?

IB: i generally don’t believe in sequels. these are not commerical endeavors to be milked, so i am always concerned about diluting the power of the initial statement.

TAC: Did you see musicians (Florida Georgia Line) are going to Zomba and playing with them? What do you think of this?

IB: it’s nice that there is interest. it has been frustrating though how little the women have been given credit. they contributed over half of the songs to the album. the men’s band is not nominated and is not featured on the album. and only four of the men from the band that were featured on the album are still in the prison.


TAC:  What’s next for you?

IB: the Malawi Mouse Boys third album comes out in April. and we have a lot of nice projects in various stages of readiness, but we are always reluctant to speak of them until they become realties in the world.

TAC:  When people are moved by the music, and the stories of the men and women on the album, what can they do to help the musicians?

IB: they can contribute to the Malawian chapters of FALMI and/or Prison Fellowship. both do wonderful work for the prisoners.

TAC: What music or musicians do you want to work with? Who do you admire?

IB: i am open to working with anyone that wants to work with me. but in general, my interest lies with people that otherwise would not be heard and whose voices transcend time and commercial.


Image and Video Courtesy of Marilena Delli


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