The Mockery that was Grammy Nominee


I listened to Zomba Prison Project album titled ‘I have no everything here’ and I am still bemused that for time in memorial this is the kind of work that will be identified as the best in musical aspect that the country could offer to the world.

When I was going through the 20-track-album I could not help it but feel very offended considering that we are one of the best musical creative minds in this part of Africa. By the way I should say it here again that our Kwela genre which was popularised by late Daniel Kachamba found itself in South Africa taken there by our local miners where it engendered with the musical culture of that country to become what has become that country’s popular musical genres.

This has been achieved after passing through a series of stages in form and musical functionality and successive recurrences that has come to be known with localised names of those countries while we are still struggling to establish a national music genre.

By the way Kalimba Band’s ‘Sometimes I wonder’ was hit BBC top 20 (40) charts.

At the moment we have artists like Lawi, Peter Mawanga, and Wambali Mkandawire whose productions can win us a Grammy.

When the Malawian prison band album was nominated for a 2016 Grammy Award in the Best World Music category which of course was won by Angelique Kidjo from Benin, I knew it was a disaster.

Convicted murderer Elias Chimenya on bass guitar, burglar Stefano Nyirenda, and prison guard Thomas Binamo, one of the band’s songwriters, are just some of the 60 prisoners who make up Prison Project band and I have nothing against them.

My misgivings are not even coming in because those nominated are convicted criminals but because this is mocking our music industry by dangling this recording industry’s most prestigious prize right above our noses knowing that we are not up to a scratch to stand shoulder to shoulder amongst those that matter.

But, imagine apart from Kidjo, the album was competing with works from three other international music stars including Ladysmith Black Mambazo of South Africa, Gilberto Gil of Brazil and Anoushka Shankar from India.

As I said earlier Kidjo won the award for her album “Sings” and to understand my contention, you just need to listen to this album and appreciate its musicality which can not compare by any iota our offerings to the Grammy.

At first I was wondering how the album found itself on the list of the nominees, but when I learnt that Ian Brennan, the album’s producer is a 2012 Grammy award winner, pieces started falling into place.

In fact he told the Associated Press news agency that he was surprised that his “massive, money-losing labor of love” had gained attention on the world music stage justifying it by saying Music is a tool for empathy having worked for the past 20 years in psychiatric facilities where he became an expert in violence prevention.

Now all other people across the world are attacking Brenann saying this album celebrated criminals to which he is arguing that it is not about glorifying anyone but it is about humanizing, and everyone should be humanized.

He struck a deal with Malawian prison officials to host workshops on conflict prevention with detainees for two weeks in 2013 while being given the opportunity to record their hymns and traditional songs in a makeshift studio next to a noisy carpentry workshop at the facility.

Yes all inmates who contributed to the project were given a monetary payment, clothing and other food and basic supplies while profits from the sale of the EP will be shared amongst the participants, including those who have been released.

Now an EP which is a short form for extended play is a musical recording that contains more music than a single, but is usually too short to qualify as a full studio album or LP and it took Brennan six hours to have the recorded music edited back to the final tracks on the album, which feature 16 of the prisons’ musicians and 18 of the disc’s 20 songs are sung in the local Chichewa language.

Now, this to me is the ‘mzungu’ mentality display when it comes to African issues where they will come and take several pictures of our Malawian children for example, and decide to publish those pictures that show our children that have been badly ravaged by hunger or shredded by the pangs of poverty. This does not mean there were no better pictures, but this is to put on show the cultural imperialism that feeds their superiority activism demons.

My point finally is that what was put on offer for the award is not the best from the land, but perhaps one would wonder why no one from home has ever sent any entries for the award and therefore those that do it on our behalf are not to blame when they pick and choose that which will otherwise serve their personal interests more than our national pride.

Compared to what is obtaining in our music industry, what was sent from Malawi is what Limbani Banda would call ‘trash’ without blinking.

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About Gregory Gondwe - Malawi Best Blogger 2014

Gregory Gondwe is a Malawian journalist who started practising journalism in 1993. Until March 31, 2012 he was regional editor and bureau chief for Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS). Gregory is also a media consultant assisting several international journalists pursuing assignments in Malawi. He holds a Diploma of Journalism and an Intermediate Certificate in Journalism among other media-related certificates. He is also columnist for Malawi's first and oldest weekly, Malawi News. He can be contacted on gregorygondwe@gmail.com.
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