The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Tony Hil­lier

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.

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