ZOMBA, MALAWI —
For the first time, a Malawian band has been nominated for a Grammy Award, and it's not just any band. It's a group from the Zomba maximum-security prison.
Its project, I Have No Everything Here, was recorded in prison in January and has been nominated for the Best World Music Album.
The band was formed in 2008, largely to entertain inmates at the Zomba prison, which already had the Malawi Prison Brass Band.
Little Dinizulu Mtengano is acting chief commissioner of prisons in Malawi and the proud founder of the Zomba Reform Band. (Credit: L. Masina/VOA)
The acting chief commissioner of prisons, Little Dinizulu Mtengano, said the band came into being when he bumped into a group of musical young prisoners.
“When I visited the Zomba Central Prison, I saw some boys playing locally made guitars from empty [containers]. And they could play music," Mtengano said. "And once they started playing music, there was an attraction of prisoners coming out from their cells to listen to this music. And I said, ‘No, let us improve this.' ”
Thomas Binamo is the leader of the Zomba Reform Band. (Credit: L. Masina/VOA)
He proposed funding from the National AIDS Commission for the musicians to start composing songs with HIV/AIDS awareness messages.
“They gave us MK500,000 [$800 US]," Mtengano said. "We managed to buy three electrical guitars, a set of drums and very small speakers. Oh, the guys were very happy. And we started composing HIV/AIDS awareness campaign music inside the prisons.”
This led to authorities giving the band additional funds to buy more musical instruments.
Linesi Kaunde, a prison officer, is the deputy leader of the band. She said the Grammy nomination was a surprise to everyone at the prison.
“We were not expecting it, especially when this American man came to record our music," she said. "We were suspicious of his motive. We were not sure what he wanted to do with our music and where he wanted to take it. We only allowed him to record us because it was an instruction from authorities.”
Band member Ernest Kufandiko was sentenced in 2009 for theft. He said the Grammy nomination confirmed that a prison is a reformatory center and not a dumping ground.
Members of the Prison Reform Band outside their makeshift recording studio at the Zomba maximum-security prison in eastern Malawi. (Credit: L. Masina/VOA)
Members of the public "should not expect that we will be leading our previous lifestyle once we are released," he said of the prisoners. "What they should know is that we have learned skills that, once released, they will know that these young men have indeed changed.”
The 20-song album was recorded in 2013 by visiting American Grammy-winning producer Ian Brenner, who later gave it international exposure.
Prison authorities said the band would not attend the awards ceremony in Los Angeles in February. Instead, they said, a government representative may go on its behalf.
But the band members say that regardless of who represents them, they will win the award.