Ian Brennan and the Democratic Power of Music

Producer Ian Brennan truly believes in the democratization of music.


About Ian Brennan

"A modern day Hemingway." —The Glass Eye (Toledo, OH)
"His lyrics are a model of economical, unpretentious, narrative songwriting." —Boston Phoenix

Ian Brennan is a GRAMMY-winning producer with four GRAMMY-nominated records (Best World Music—2011 and 2015, Best Traditional Folk—2006 and 2007).

In the studio, he has worked with the likes of Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio), Flea, Tinariwen, Lucinda Williams, David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Nels Cline (Wilco), DJ Bonebrake & John Doe (X, the Knitters), Jovanotti, Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney), Bill Frisell, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jonathan Richman, Richard Thompson, and more. He has produced live shows of up to 15,000 people in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington (DC), Portland (OR), Tucson, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Boston with artists as diverse as Green Day, Fugazi, Merle Haggard, filmmaker John Waters, Kris Kristofferson, Tammy Faye, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Vic Chesnutt, Peaches, and the Vienna Boys Choir.

His benefit concerts have raised over $100,000 for local charities and political causes. Additionally, he created the "Live Nude Bands" benefit game-show, hosted a weekly free performance in a San Francisco laundromat for five straight years that resulted in three "Unscrubbed" CD compilations, wrote a local-music column for ZERO magazine from 1998-2001, directed the weekly cable-access show Squawk documenting the Bay Area arts community, created the first "Boxing Bush" online video-game, spearheaded the "Million Band March" (protesting misuse of artist's living-spaces by developers), booked the music for "Food Not Bombs" 20th anniversary free-show in Dolores Park, was instrumental in pioneering the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur as a music-venue by bringing the first national touring acts there in 2001 (Loudon Wainwright III, Jello Biafra, et al), and had a recurring monthly guest-appearance for years on Derk Richardson's Here and Now program on public-radio giant, KPFA. Also, he released nine solo albums, beginning in the pre-historic, vinyl-only days of 1987. A published poet (the Fineline Thunder anthology and Agape Magazine), he is the author of the books, Anger Antidotes: How Not to Lose Your S#&! (2011) and Hate-less: How to make friends with a f&#!ed up world (2014), as well as the novella, Sister Maple Syrup Eyes (2015) and How Music Dies (2016).

Most recently—amongst other contributions—through these projects, they have been able to provide musical instruments and legal support (gaining the release of some prisoners) for the Zomba Prison Project, life-saving neurosurgery for the 11-year-old daughter of The Good Ones (Rwanda) leader Adrien, musical equipment for the Malawi Mouse Boys, and the donation over 300 sun hats for an albinism community in northern Tanzania.

He was born in Oakland, CA and raised in the far east-bay (....and has proudly never taken a selfie).

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Transcript

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.

AJC: Why?

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.

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