Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
The story of Ian Brennan and Malawi’s Zomba Prison Band
Ian B.

As a wealthy white westerner with power and aess to resources, Brennan philanthropic mission to help Malawian prisoner-musicians feels too close to the archetype of the great white savior who is also selling the story of ‘poor Africa’.

Just as the dust in Malawi is settling from the excitement of The Zomba Prison Bandearning the first ever Grammy nomination for the country, American producer Ian Brennan is promoting his new book, “How Music Dies (Or Lives): Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts” [1]. His book, which is based on his experience with “third world” music, highlights inequity in the way music is circulated and recognized in a world dominated by western standards. Ironically, his own goal of finding an “authentic” Malawian sound and his role in producing “exotic” music for an international stage, reproduces that inequality. 

Brennan rose to fame as the creator of the hit singing show ‘Glee’, which aired its last episode in 2015. A few years back, he started a secondary career, discovering unknown artists from Africa. He has a stated interest in philanthropic work, and a desire to give a voice to underrepresented musicians around the world. As such, he often holds benefit concerts for charities, and expresses concern over the inequities in the world [2]. It hardly comes as a surprise then that he has used the proceeds to secure the release of some of the prisoners. However, as a wealthy white westerner with power and access to resources, his philanthropic mission to help (read: “save”) Malawian prisoner-musicians feels too close to the archetype of the great white savior who is also selling the story of ‘poor Africa’. 

Brennan specifically went to Malawi to “discover” new talent. The Zomba Prison Band was formed in 2008 in Zomba’s local prison, and by 2013 they would record a 20-song album with the Grammy-winning producer [3]. Their album was nominated in the category of Best World Music Album in the 2016 Grammys. While this was an exciting development for the Malawian music industry, one cannot help but notice some of the same old representation problems that plague collaborations between African and Western artists. 

Recall the controversy around Paul Simon’s collaboration with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on his hit album, ‘Graceland’. At a time when Simon’s career was dwindling, he went in search of unknown talent in South Africa with the aim of reviving his Simon and Garfunkel era accolades [4]. While Simon received acclaim for bringing international exposure to his South African collaborators, he was simultaneously criticized for culturally appropriating their music, underpaying them and capitalizing on their political situation for self-interest. The same interplay of power, privilege and representation are also part of Brennan’s work in Malawi. 

Brennan seems to have found a knack for discovering exotic talent and manufacturing it for an international audience. Some of the artists that he has produced are from countries such as Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and Mali — countries which have all captured Western headlines for tragic events. In Mali, he worked with Tinawiren, a group well known for their participation in the Tuareg uprisings. In the case of Uganda, he worked with musicians from the marginalized Acholi ethnic group of infamous Joseph Kony. Malawi, recently came to the international spotlight when Madonna adopted her orphaned children there.

His initial excursion to Malawi led him to produce an album for the band he founded, Malawi Mouse Boys [5]. The group’s name derives from the job the members had when Brennan met them — they were vendors that who grilled field mice. Although Brennan claims he suggested the name simply because of their former occupation, in reality, it is also predicated on marketing African otherness—their name identifies both their location and the exotic culinary tastes [6]. Equally frustrating is the inclusion of the word “boy” in the band’s name reminiscent of the colonial infantilization of grown men. Four members of the band were in their mid- to late 20s when Brennan recorded them [7]. When this “boys” band did not garner the desired international success it promised, Brennan seemingly set his sights on an even more marginalized population –- prisoners. 

Perhaps Brennan’s own expectations of privilege and power can be seen when he expresses deep frustration over his experiences in attempting to gain access to the prisoners due to the paperwork required from the authorities which should be expected for a maximum security prison. Finding participants was equally challenging for him. One of the officers noted that they had no choice and only agreed to being recorded because they were instructed to by the prison authorities [8]. 

Brennan also admits that he faced obstacles gaining trust of the prisoners. They were admittedly suspicious about his intentions with their music. These admissions raise concerns over Brennan’s knowledge of how consent was obtained and whether participation was ultimately out of choice. It is indicative of a typical situation where collaborative projects between Western and African artists are marred by unequal power relationships and where the true motivation behind the collaboration can be called into question.

In his attempt to draw bridges between cultures, Brennan could have collaborated with more accessible musicians. Popular artists such as Lucius Banda, The Black Missionaries, Lawi, Peter Mawanga and The Maravi Movement, or Giddes Chalamanda would have all been suitable fits, but it seems that working with an ostracized population may have been integral to his project - in one interview with WAMU, he expresses surprise over the soulful sound of one of the Malawi Mouse Boys who he claims had “never listened to recorded voice”, implying that this group was untainted by exposure to American music [9]. Given that the group is based in the nation’s capital and music from all over the world plays on Malawi’s airwaves, the plausibility that the group’s sound is without external influences is unlikely. Music gains vibrancy and traction from interaction – it is not static. The expectation of finding “authenticity” is problematic and contributes to a type of cultural suffocation that can ironically also lead to the death of music. 

One has to ask, is privileging the human interest story a sure fire way of securing coveted awards and commercial success? Perhaps his search for the exotic speaks to his own aspirations for collecting Grammys by marketing a story of vulnerability and people rising out of the ashes. Brennan has previously won a Grammy for producing an album for Malian artist Tinariwen, and has been nominated in the Folk and World categories before. 

The other question that lingers is whether or not the group itself will receive any direct benefit from the Grammy nomination, or what kind of remuneration they get from the project itself. It is true that Brennan’s involvement and the international accolades the project has received have brought some attention to grievances of the prisoners. However, the music, aimed at an international audience, hardly registers in Malawi’s vibrant burgeoning local music scene, receiving scant airtime on local radio [10]. 

While international prominence may be their greatest benefit, it is unclear how this may aid them while being incarcerated (albeit some of them have since managed to be released). And what structural impact this project would have for other collaborations between Malawian (or African) artists and western musicians. 

* Sitinga Kachipande is a Malawian blogger and PhD student in Sociology at Virginia Tech with a concentration in Africana Studies and Global Political Economy. Follow her on Twitter: @MsTingaK 


[1] Sexton, Courtney (2016), “How the Music Industry Erases the World, According to Producer Ian Brennan” WAMU, 19 February,, accessed 15 March 2016.
[2] Ian Brennan (2016), “Ian Brennan Bio”, Ian, 15 March,, accessed 15 March 2016. 
[3] Simon, Allison (2015) “Malawi's Prison Band Up for a Grammy – But May Not Even Know It” The Guardian, 15 December,, accessed 15 March 2016.
[4] Fricke, David (1987) “Paul Simon’s Graceland Tour”, Rolling Stone, 2 July,, accessed 15 March 2016.
[5] Kermeliotis, Ted (2013) “Meet the Malawi Mouse Boys, The gospel Band that Sells Mice”, 15 August,, accessed 15 March 2016.
[6] Cartwirght, Gail (2012), “Catch them if you can: The Malawi Mouse Boys sound extraordinary, and do a roaring trade from their kind of pest control”, The Sunday Times, 13 May,, accessed 15 March 2016.
[7] Arcos, Betto (2014), “Malawi Mouse Boys: Hunting Mice and Singing in Harmony” NPR, 13 December,, accessed 15 March 2016. 
[8] Simon, Allison (2015) “Malawi's Prison Band Up for a Grammy – But May Not Even Know It” The Guardian, 15 December,, accessed 15 March 2016.
[9] Sexton, Courtney (2016), “How the Music Industry Erases the World, According to Producer Ian Brennan” WAMU, 19 February,, accessed 15 March 2016.
[10] Loca, Kimpho (2015) “Malawi Prison Band Gets Grammy Awards Nomination” , 8 December, accessed 15 March 2016.



* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online atPambazuka News.