I Have No Everything Here Zomba Prison Project Six Degrees Records
Rwanda is My Home The Good Ones IRL/Planet
Grammy Award-winning Californian producer Ian Brennan has helped craft albums for Merle Haggard, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, Bill Frisell and Rambling Jack Elliott, but his focus of late has been on assisting disadvantaged African musicians from some of that continent’s most impoverished countries and underexposed cultures to reach international audiences. Having already championed the lauded gospel group Malawi Mouse Boys, Brennan now brings to global attention a group of amateur singer-songwriters incarcerated in the southeast African country’s maximumsecurity jail. I Have No Everything Here features 16 inmates of a dilapidated and overcrowded Dickensian institution, recorded in situ, singing 20 gospel-influenced songs, ranging in duration from as little as 16 seconds to three minutes. The tone of the Zomba Prison Project’s album is set by the comically titled opener Listen to Me (or I Will Kick Your Ass), an impressively melodic and soulful piece delivered by a male singer over a sparse electric guitar. Please, Don’t Kill My Child, a plaintive plea that cuts deep, is appropriately sung by a female vocalist over an acoustic guitar fingerpick. More upbeat offerings include A Message (I Will Take You), a funky number featuring harmony vocals and distorted electric guitar. The percussionbacked I See the Whole World Dying of AIDS reaches a choral conclusion that’s rousing given the subject matter. Slightly off-key singing impinges on a handful of tracks on a charmingly down-home album.
The Good Ones’ Rwanda is My Home, the second international release from the first of Brennan’s African discoveries, is a more accomplished album than the group’s 2010 debut Kigali Y’Izahabu or the Zomba Prison Project recording, even if the singing is occasionally short of concert pitch and the guitars a tad flat. The salient attribute of the Good Ones, apart from the fact that the band’s members are working farmers, is that several are Tutsi or Hutu, and were on opposite sides of the divide during the horrific mid-1990s genocide.
Singing predominantly in the native Rwandan language of Kinyarwanda, all members of the quartet contribute compositions (mostly love songs), lead vocals and tight harmony back-up. Between them they cover the spectrum from the deepest to the highest register, which provides admirable contrasts and variety. The guitar picking is uniformly neat if unexceptional. While occasionally employing unusual chord progressions and rhythms, many songs sound strangely like three-chord-trick skiffle numbers or classic Woody Guthrie pieces. A mid-set number that has echoes of Congolese soukous and a rumba-styled curtain-closer are exceptions.