Ian Brennan and the Democratization of Music
Having worked with artists around the globe, producer Ian Brennan truly believes in the democratic power of music.
Ian Brennan is an award-winning music producer known for recording under-represented artists from across the globe. As an author, he is an influential writer on music and violence prevention.
Born in 1966 in Oakland, California, Brennan began to play music at an early age and started to record his own music at age 20. In the late 1990s he hosted and presented free concerts for social causes at various sites in San Francisco. The following decade, he established himself as a premier music producer, receiving Grammy nominations for overseeing Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s I Stand Alone (2006) and Peter Case’s Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John (2007).
Beginning in 2009, Brennan began to travel the world to record artists from Cambodia, Kenya, Pakistan, Rwanda, Vietnam, and elsewhere. He won a Grammy Award for the North African Tuareg band Tinariwen’s album Tassili (2011), and was nominated in 2015 for a recording of music from Zomba Central Prison in Malawi.
There is an American record producer who’s helping to bring music from Central Africa to audiences that might never otherwise have encountered it. This, “Please, Don’t Kill My Child,” is from Ian Brennan’s first Zomba Prison Project album, a series of recordings made in a Malawian jail.
The Grammy award-winning producer and concert promoter has worked with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Green Day, and the Vienna Boys Choir, among many others. But music is only a part of who Ian Brennan is. He’s also written extensively about conflict resolution, and, in the past 20 years, has trained more than 100,000 people around the world in violence prevention and anger management. But Brennan doesn’t discriminate between his two jobs.
Ian Brennan: To me, they’re kind of the same thing. It’s all social work.
And with good reason. Brennan’s first job was counseling patients in locked psych units in his native California, all the while fostering his own obsession.
Brennan: What I planned to do from the time as long back as I can remember was to do nothing but play music 24 hours a day, and that’s what I did. And I probably would’ve been hospitalized in today’s world as a kid, because I was O.C.D. about it, about playing guitar. You know, I had this goal that I wanted to have impact but not be famous, and I wanted to make a lot of money and give it to charity. And I reached a certain point in my life where it was clear that I was not gonna have that level of impact, and I wasn’t gonna make a lot of money, but I could still maybe do something.
He wound up doing quite a lot. Together with his wife, the Italian photographer and filmmaker, Marilena Delli, Brennan has traveled the world in search of artists singing in languages yet to be heard on a global stage. And they found plenty. From Rwanda, The Good Ones.
From South Sudan, Wayo, Trance Percussion Masters. Brennan also produced the Grammy Award winning record by Tinariwen, a group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert region of Northern Mali. And the Malawi Mouse Boys.
In the summer of 2013, husband and wife headed again to Malawi without a clear plan. Two albums later, the Zomba Prison Project is the only Malawian music ever to receive a Grammy nomination.
Brennan: 2000 people in a prison that was designed to hold 340 people, I was willing to make the leap of faith that they had things they needed to express.
Despite being their guiding force, Brennan is conspicuously absent from all the documentaries that accompany his projects.
Brennan: My goal is to be invisible. I will be forgotten anyway, so I don’t think there’s any need for me to be known. And I want to allow people to communicate. I just wanna encourage them to communicate and find the voice that they have within them, and not try to present themselves in a social way that they feel is standard. And that’s generally the obstacle, is that people generally play the music they think you wanna hear, and the music that I’m interested in usually is the music that you almost have to pry out of them or the music they didn’t know was in them. Certainly with the group projects like the Zomba Prison Project, it’s the people on the margins that oftentimes had the most profound things to express, such as the women who represent less than one percent of the prison population but made up more than half of the first album and almost a third of the second record.
AJC: And you really had to drag them screaming to the idea that they could make music.
Brennan: Yes, I mean there’s a history of misogyny in the country, like pretty much everywhere in the world, and they were discouraged from expressing themselves in this way. They had no instruments, they had no support, they were adamant about the idea that they were not lead singers, and that they were not songwriters. But once one of them stepped forward with a song, it was like floodgates opened, and they started lining up and queuing up and they had a lot of songs in them.
World music has become a commodity, and too often a curiosity for Westerners. Ian Brennan is adamant that nobody gets a pass simply for being exotic.
Brennan: The goal is to hold everyone in the world to the same standards, to treat everybody with a tough-mindedness. And so, as much as possible, my concern is finding people that write really good songs, and finding people that have really interesting voices, no matter where they’re from. And I’m not concerned about trying to capture anything or preserve anything, and influences way too complex for that. Academics can do that, and it’s fine, but the reality is is that the best music comes from within the individual. It’s not based on input, it’s not consumeristic. it’s not that, if you listen to the exact records that Miles Davis did, that you’re going to be like him. You will not be like him. You can do everything he did, you won’t be like him. So, it comes from within the individual.
AJC: Will you continue to do these Africa projects and if so why?
Brennan: Well, we’ll continue to do projects wherever we can do them—not just Africa, anywhere where there’s people that are underrepresented. That’s in this country too.
AJC: I was gonna say.
Brennan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m well aware of the issues here, and I’m just as interested in hearing from people here that are under-heard. But I’m most interested in hearing from people that are singing in languages other than English.
Brennan: Because [there are] a 100,000 releases a year and zero from the Central African Republic. You expound that out over a 10 year period that’s a million to zero, not a million to one. It’s indefensible for anybody that believes in democracy.
AJC: When I hear somebody singing, “Chichewa, Please Don’t Kill My Child,” and I have to listen to try and find and get an understanding of it from the way it’s been sung rather than the words that have been sung. That almost feels more useful than having a literal understanding of it.
Brennan: It is because you are forced to listen to what the person means, not what they’re saying. And if they mean it, it’s very important, so we get out of our intellect and into our heart.