A couple of years ago he unearthed and introduced to a global audience The Good Ones, an a cappella trio of genocide survivors from Rwanda. His latest discovery is a gospel group from Malawi who take their name from the shish-kebabed mice they sell as snacks when they’re not making music.
The Good Ones’ and Malawi Mouse Boys’ albums, Kigali Y’Izahabu and He is #1, both recorded in situ, respectively became the first international releases in the Kinyarwanda and Chichewa languages. In between those recordings, the intrepid American, who has also produced CDs for the likes of Merle Haggard, Rambling Jack Elliott, Lucinda Williams and Richard Thompson, masterminded an album that cracked a Grammy Award for the celebrated Saharan band, Tinariwen (Tassili).
Brennan’s interest in African music was ignited by language. “I think that languages is one of the last sonic areas to explore. Linguistic theorists state that every single person on earth technically speaks their own language. Singers, in my experience, usually have even greater idiosyncrasies in pronunciation. When we listen to someone sing in a foreign tongue, we are forced to pay attention not to what they are saying, but what they mean. If more people on the planet listened more closely to one another, particularly those they customarily pay attention to the least — whether that be children, the elderly, the “insane” or those from another country — our chances of surviving as a species would undoubtedly improve.”
The producer literally bumped into the Malawi Mouse Boys during a 3000-kilometres drive around the southeast African republic in search of musicians. “One of the adjuncts of poverty is that often instruments are in unfairly short supply so sighting musicians is rare,” he indicates. “Fortunately, my wife [filmmaker, Marilena Delli] and I spotted Alfred [Gavana] from the Mouse Boys strumming a guitar beside the road.”
The U-turn to get back to him was richly rewarded. “One of the most musical moments of my life was Alfred shyly muttering a song for us, ‘Ndinasangalala’ (‘I Was Happy’), then hearing a group of local children that had gathered around, unexpectedly joining in for the chorus. It sounds very Hollywoodian, but the sun was setting at that moment and there was a great sense of ‘at last’, as if fate was taking us all for a ride.”
Brennan was later introduced to an even more impressive singer called Zondiwe Kachingwe, whose rich and soulful lead vocals illuminate the album he subsequently produced. “The sky should be the limit for him — he is one of the strongest singers that I have ever personally witnessed. One of those rare people that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up due to the depth of his emotional connection.”
All eight Mouse Boys sing. Their vocal harmonies have antecedents in South African township gospel choirs and mid-20th century Afro-American gospel music a la Rosetta Thorpe, although Brennan says the collective’s biggest influence is reggae. Malawi Mouse Boys accompany themselves, though only frugally, on often off-key recycled guitars and makeshift drums.
Explaining the band’s gospel base, Brennan, says: “The nation is technically almost 80% Christian, and the group’s primary public performance outlet is the church. The missionaries in Malawi have been critical in helping develop a lot of the educational and medical services outside of the two big cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe. A Catholic priest, Father Gamba, founded the first free-press and non-governmental radio and television stations in Malawi, that were instrumental in overthrowing the former dictator in 1994 — which is nice contrast to the documentation of the negative role some church officials played in Rwanda’s most recent and noticeable genocide.”
The San Francisco-based producer eschewed the use of embellishment or studio artifice in his African sojourns, which were all recorded entirely outdoors, though in very different parts of the continent.Brennan reports that He is #1 was recorded in only two days, beside the Boys’ clay huts, with the group passionate and efficient participants in the process. “The moment the record button was hit, they were on song. If the recording process was a failure, that could only have been due to my inability to capture it, because they performed beautifully.” Apart from one track, the entire record is made up of single and first takes. “My approach is to not use headphones for performers and to have little or no listening back while recording as I find these activities kill momentum and feed the subjectivity that is a primary obstacle to begin. The more that people can play in exactly the manner in which they routinely play, the more likely they will sound like themselves and not some glamorised ‘Facebook picture’ representation.”
It’s clear from the album that the Mouse Boys’ instruments are relatively unsophisticated and some of the playing likewise. “There is absolutely no auto-tuning on the record,” Brennan admits. “Even if we had wanted to, the amount of bleed between instruments and mics makes any attempt to tune one voice a complete can of worms where the cure causes many more problems than the disease.”
The record was recorded and mixed in surround sound — as Brennan expands. “From amidst the performers rather than the audience’s perspective outside the music. This was a deliberate choice to place the listener with the musicians, in full immersion, rather than observing the band from a distance as many field-recordings do and thereby risk regarding the musicians as merely exotic curiosities or amusements instead of the vibrant and unique artists that they are. Due to the guerilla manner in which it was recorded, quite a bit of post-production was required, whittling the songs down to their strongest elements and moments.” An invasion of tiny, fast-moving local spiders posed the biggest problem. “They kept finding their way into my 8-track and time was lost to the digital interference they caused to the hard-drive.”
In a veiled criticism of the over-produced albums put out by self-proclaimed world music gatekeepers from Europe and the UK, he says: “If I have left no fingerprint or footprint on a recording, then to me the process has been a success — I see my role as to only do what is needed.”Brennan rues the fact that The Boys struggle to make a living. “They all subsist as farmers and/or shish-kabobed mice sellers. Their average daily income is less than 50 cents a day. The life expectancy for males in Malawi, particularly those in the rural areas such as where they live, is just over 40, so it is a rather rough day-to-day toil that they endure. They do not have a profile in Malawi, nor did The Good Ones in Rwanda. Unfortunately, nepotism seems to be another one of those universals — the ‘We’re Big in Japan’ phenomenon. It seems true that one is rarely a hero in their own hometown, or country/continent for that matter. And if one is heralded locally, the reasons are often suspect.”
While Brennan would love to tour both groups overseas, he is all too aware of the problems entailed. “The respective governments are often the biggest impediment to that, particularly post-911. Some bureaucracies now even require that musicians come and perform for them in their offices so that the government officials can determine whether they are culturally worthy before issuing visas. The Orweillian implications of a clerk in some tiny embassy somewhere acting as a cultural gatekeeper most eloquently speaks for itself.”
Undaunted, Brennan says he would relish any opportunity to be able to help give voice to any “deserving and unheard, underheard and/or wrongly represented” music.
“I firmly believe that the more diverse the voices are that can be heard, the greater the understanding that can be achieved. The increasing centralisation of media and narrowing of points-of-view is a reflection and reinforcement of a more dictatorial culture. That tens of thousands of bands hailing from Los Angeles or London — and that are often barely indistinguishable from one another, to boot — have a platform and are broadcast internationally, while not a single record is given a fair chance from countries with millions of citizens, is a crime against humanity, of sorts, and, in the least, a major obstacle towards true equity ever being achieved globally.”
As readers will have already discerned, Ian Brennan is not a person who pulls his punches. He once famously challenged former president George W. Bush to a charity boxing match. “Not to sully The Malawi Mouse Boys, The Good Ones or Tinariwen’s good names with my politics, that’s true,” he confirms. “I created an online video-game where people could box with the former President. And then, though I abhor violence and have worked actively via lecturing and my book (Anger Antidotes: How not to lose your s#&!) to prevent it, I did challenge George W. to a boxing match. It seemed imperative on a certain level that someone call him on the macho-bullshit that was imperiling and costing tens of thousands of lives, that he be asked to put his money where his mouth was and walk the talk, so to speak.”
Brennan’s initial goal was to get some big-fish like Eddie Vedder, Billie Joe Armstrong and shock-radio DJ Howard Stern to issue the challenge to the President and generate a lot of attention. He was unsuccessful in getting anyone to rise to the occasion, so it was left to him. “I traveled to Washington DC and at the storied 930 Club we installed the same boxing ring that Sugar Ray Leonard had once fought in and staged a night of campy theater and music. President Bush never replied. Even though I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, I wouldn’t be totally surprised to discover someday that because of that prank there’s now some boring and routine CIA file lost on some shelf somewhere, rotting away with my name on it.”
An abbreviated version of the above article first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine.