Review: Striking songs from Malawi on Zomba Prison Project

September 9, 2016
This cover image released by Six Degrees Records shows "I Will Not Stop Singing," the latest release by Zomba Prison Project. (Six Degrees Records via AP)

Zomba Prison Project, “I Will Not Stop Singing” (Six Degrees Records)

A striking series of singing telegrams of regret, expectation, grief and warning from an earthly purgatory — or worse — the Zomba Prison Project captures performances by inmates and guards at a maximum security penitentiary in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries.

Following up on last year’s “I Have No Everything Here,” its Grammy-nominated predecessor, “I Will Not Stop Singing” gives the men’s and women’s wings of the prison an international stage and a sliver of hope.

“I Will Never Stop Grieving for You, My Wife,” written and performed by guard Thomas Binamo, carries a stark message — “What are you doing there in that graveyard that I cannot see? Why did you suddenly leave me? I wanted to let you know, that our daughters are all doing fine” — in a Tim Hardin style.

While the men have a basic band (guitar, bass, drums), the women perform with little backing except each other but acquit themselves stunningly.

Like most of the songs, “AIDS Has No Cure” is brief and to the point, the lyrics in the local language sustained by polyrhythmic handclaps and a dexterous bassline.

Since the previous album, some prisoners have died, others have been released and a few may get another chance, as producer Ian Brennan and Marilena Delli, his filmmaker-wife, try to have dodgy convictions reconsidered.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, these prison songs are snapshots which could inspire a lengthy book.