Zomba Prison Project. All photos by Marilena Umuhoza Delli.
NowGenDrums Special Report
Defying Discrimination & Misogyny in order to be heard
How Resourceful Women Around the World Defy Musical Limitations and Fashion their Own Instruments from Everyday Objects
By Ian Brennan
For more than a decade, I and my wife, Italian-Rwandan photographer and filmmaker, Marilena Umuhoza Delli, have had the honor of recording with musicians from underrepresented populations around the world, including Rwanda, Cambodia, Romania, Pakistan, and South Sudan. Dismayingly, regardless of the region, a commonality has sadly been patterns of exclusion towards women and the music-making process.
The Zomba Prison Project debut album received the first Grammy nomination ever for Malawi in 2016—an honor that almost 80 percent of African nations have not yet gained. Welcomingly, worldwide media swarmed to Zomba Prison as a result.
Sadly though, many “journalists” failed to delve too deeply into the facts, instead only interviewing, filming, and photographing prisoners from the male band—most of whom had nothing at all to do with the nominated record.
Worse yet, the global media almost wholeheartedly ignored the women, whose contributions had made up more than half of the songs. The women’s contributions were all the more remarkable given that they make up less than two percent of the total prison population.
Similarly, a kind donation was consequently made providing additional equipment to the already outfitted men, whose practice room then became piled ceiling-high with amps à la Motörhead or Spinal Tap. Meanwhile, the women remained with nothing but a single hand-drum, and they were forced to share even that meager instrument with the men half of the time.
Rebutting these slights, the female prisoners fashioned their own percussion from a cooking-pipe "snare" and a plastic water cooler "kick drum," literally marching to their own drum(s).
In northern Ghana, women declared “witches” survive selling firewood. Or they work the fields for the chiefs. Some are forced into prostitution. (Albeit rarer, there are also men that are accused, and they are deemed “wizards.”) But the only demons most of these women are in touch with are their own. Their mental health issues and physical ailments—blindness, misshapen limbs, etc.—rather than inspiring compassion have instead been vilified, and the vulnerable shunned and ostracized, usually as a ruse to steal their land after their husband’s passing.
Victims are blamed to provide emotional distance and a greater sense of difference than exists. Right here in our supposedly “postfeminism” era, the persecution of alleged witches still endures. Some are marked with tribal facial scars given at birth, others as part of their banishment. It is yet another regional twist on how the world manages to persecute women.
Witch Camp percussionist in Ghana
But given the opportunity, none of the horrendous factors listed above limited the women’s creativity and resourcefulness. Percussion was fashioned from tin-can cymbals, dried corn-husk cabasas, a rubbed balloon, and a tea-kettle tom drum.
Yanna Momina is a rarity among the Afar people. She not only plays music, but composes her own songs—songs with such weighty and provocative titles as “My Family Won’t Let Me Marry the Man I Love (I Am Forced to Wed My Uncle)” and "Every One Knows I Have Taken a Young Lover.”
We set-up to record Momina in a stilt hut on the Red Sea, and she accompanied herself using the stack of bracelets on her right-forearm as jangles and a matchbook for castanets.
Limiting the musicality of over half of the population incalculably damages our cultural heritage and the depth of musical diversity. Far from theoretical, these restrictions can even prove physically endangering in places such as Iran, where women potentially face imprisonment for solo singing in public—which is deemed a seductive and sexual act (as opposed to choral vocals, which are generally allowed).
The discrimination we have most routinely witnessed is subtler, but (barely) less sinister: Male musicians’ patronizing dismissal of women’s musical efforts as trivial and insignificant, unworthy of serious attention. And so, it is towards the ignored and denied that we deliberately point our microphones, gifted beyond measure to be blessed as listeners beholding their voices.
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Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer (Tinariwen, The Good Ones [Rwanda], Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ustad Saami [Pakistan]) and author. Since 1993, he has taught violence prevention for such prestigious organizations as the University of London, UC Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome). His fifth book, Silenced by Sound: The Music Meritocracy Myth, was just published in September by PM Press.
Marilena Umuhoza Delli is a photographer, author and filmmaker whose work has been published around the world by the BBC, CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera, VICE, Libération, Corriere della Sera, Le Monde, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, the New York Times, among others. She has written two Italian-language books about racism and growing-up with a Rwandan mother in the most racist region of northern Italy. She holds a Master's Degree in Language for International Communication where she wrote her thesis on African cinema. Additionally, she studied filmmaking at the University of California in Los Angeles, California.