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Interview with Ian Brennan-Silenced by Sound-the Music Meritocracy Myth

Tanzania Albinism Collective
Women who are part of the Tanzania Albinism Collective live on a remote island in Africa. (Photo courtesy of Brennen and Marilena Umuhoza Delli)

Last week I had the pleasure for the second time to interview music producer, activist and author Ian Brennan. He’s the man behind such massive undertakings as The Zomba Prison Project, in which he and his filmmaker and photographer wife Marilena Umuhoza Delli went to the maximum-security Zomba Central Prison in Zomba, Malawi. There he recorded prisoners whose songs are filled with heartache and even hope. The album “I Have No Everything Here”  was nominated in the 2016 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album.

In 2016, Brennan traveled to Ukerewe, the largest inland island in Africa to work with people with Albinism. The island is so remote that it can only be reached by an over-packed four-hour ferry ride. It is a place so remote that historically people often traveled there to abandon their children with albinism and now serves as a haven for many with the condition.

There, he worked with members of the Standing Voice community, who volunteered for songwriting workshops. Brennan encouraged them to write about their experiences and to express what they wanted others to understand about their existence. But even among the willing, singing-out proved hard within a group that routinely avoided eye contact, rarely spoke above a whisper, and were unaccustomed to dancing

And he produced Tinariwen's “Tassili,” which won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album; Ramblin' Jack Elliott's “I Stand Alone;” and Peter Case's “Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John.” Those were nominated for Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. 

He’s written four other books: “Anger Antidotes” and “Hate-less,” plus a novella called “Sister Maple Syrup Eyes” and he wrote a book on music called “How Music Dies (or Lives).” 

His latest book is called “Silenced by Sound: the Music Meritocracy Myth.” It’s about the inequity in the music business. We spoke for about an hour on this topic, which was fascinating. Brennan definitely has some strong opinions, which are valid, on how the music industry continually throws money at mediocre artists or former superstars who should’ve retired after their earlier successes (he mentions Bruce Sprinstein, Bob Dylan and Neil Young as examples). 

“You know, we're talking about over 100,000 releases in America alone. Every year. It's an incredible amount of material and there's a huge amount of redundancy. Yet the exceptional things are what tend to get lost the most.”

Instead, all that money could be invested in discovering or promoting musicians whose voices deserve to be heard by wider audiences. But even in this digital age, it’s still impossible to be able to hear everything.  But Brennan says that if people are motivated to find the good music, they can, but they have to dig. 

“I think that when we rely on consumption and when we rely on corporations in particular, to provide music for us, we're  actually being cheated because there's music everywhere.” 

Brennan adds that with musicians who achieve great success, that success often leads to arrogance, which leads to diminished creativity. A better way is for them to step back and even stop recording or at least releasing music. This would unclog the gates to allow more music. 

Ian Brennan’s new book “ Silenced by Sound: the Music Meritocracy Myth.” was just released and is available on Amazon. 


Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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