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Ian Brennan's New Album Is A Unique Look At The Comoros Islands


Ian Brennan's new project is "We Are An Island, But We Are Not Alone."


COMORIAN: (Singing in non-English language).

SIMON: He recorded a group called Comorian in unconventional locations - an abandoned car or just outside in the rain or in view of passersby on the Comoros Islands. He went there hoping to capture the sound of a certain type of flute, but he discovered the last remaining player of that flute had died. But the Grammy Award-winning producer found there were lots of local musicians to play instruments that were new to him. Ian Brennan himself joins us now from Veneto, Italy.

Thanks so much for being with us.

IAN BRENNAN: Thank you.

SIMON: Mr. Brennan, tell us about your fellow musicians and the instruments they played and the music they made.


COMORIAN: (Singing in non-English language).

BRENNAN: Well, Mmadi plays the double-sided guitar, which he builds on his own, and he's a singer. Soubi is also a singer. And he's sort of the, quote-unquote, "master" who has taught others to build instruments and to write songs and to sing. And he also plays the gabusi, which is sort of a long-neck lute, and they are accompanied on occasion by a gentleman on ngoma drum. And these are really stripped-down tales of their experiences on the island. And they don't sound old, and they don't sound modern, but they sound eternal.

SIMON: Boy, we've talked to a lot of musicians who talk about the challenges of recording at home, but you recorded part of this album in a car, a lot of it outdoors. What were you hoping to capture in the manner of recording as much as the music and the musicians themselves?

BRENNAN: Life, emotion, intimacy, creating intimacy with strangers through music, through art - and I actually prefer recording outdoors to really represent a moment in time.

SIMON: You know, it drives most engineers crazy, right? I mean, they love studios and no interfering sound.

BRENNAN: Right. I love interfering sound. On the record, there's a song - Mmadi's talking about his friends who tragically died trying to take a boat overseas. As he's singing this song, he's about 50 meters from the ocean looking to the west where they had departed. And there was a young boy, probably about 9 or 10 years old, walking around on lava rock around him. It was audible on - bled into everything. But to me, it's not a mistake. It makes the song. He's listening to the words of this song, and he's taking in this story, and he's trying to not make noise but in the process is actually contributing to the emotion of the song.

SIMON: Tell us about a song that's a prayer for a better life.


COMORIAN: (Singing in non-English language).

BRENNAN: "Prayer For A Better Life" is a song that Soubi improvised, just accompanied by a hand drum. There's a gentle woundedness about the way he sings but a resilience. And poverty is very real in the island. He's, at age 61, hoping for better things but nonetheless thankful for what he has.

SIMON: Music has grown more international over the last couple of decades, but is that always reflected in the major awards? I'm thinking of the Grammys.

BRENNAN: It's not. Almost 80% of the nations in Africa have never had a single artist nominated ever. No artist from the Middle East has ever won. No artist from Eastern Europe has ever won. So I think people are confusing sometimes probability with possibility. So there's a lot of stuff on the internet. In fact, arguably, there's too much stuff on the internet, and things tend to get lost. So a large majority of things on the internet are not being listened to ever. That's not a guess. That's literal. So it being there is not the same as it having a fair shot or a fair chance.

SIMON: You're trying to do something with music, aren't you?

BRENNAN: Music is social work. I would argue that when you talk about an artist like Bruce Springsteen at certain stages of his career or James Brown or Nina Simone, they've probably done more healing than any psychiatrist or social worker could hope to do in a lifetime. And that's not to belittle at all the work of social workers and psychologists, but it's a powerful, powerful medium. It's a drug. Music is medicine. But I think people are largely overdosing on bad drugs - music made for the wrong reason, music made to make money rather than to make people feel something.

SIMON: Musicians are not averse to money - been my experience.

BRENNAN: They're not.

SIMON: And deserve to be paid, you know, too.

BRENNAN: Well, certainly, but not overpaid. And there's a lot more music out there that's not being heard because of the system that's based on money. And I think everyone has one great song in them. And unfortunately, most of those songs go unheard. The best music often comes from the non-musicians, and it often comes from those that are the most reluctant to even share. But when they do, it can be awe-inspiring. It can be awful, too. But sometimes it's just incredible, the uniqueness. And with these voices, with Mmadi and Soubi on this record, you're hearing two voices that are not born from tradition, but they're two voices that could not come from anywhere else but that time and place at the same time.

SIMON: What do you think a recording like this - what can they open for us to see into each other's lives?

BRENNAN: Well, I think the goal is to de-exoticize. And sometimes when people go to other cultures, they are looking for the, quote-unquote "exotic." But I think that music is an incredible empathy-building machine and that we can, you know, use a language that is the one language that transcends all other language barriers, and that is music. Every country deserves voices, multiple voices, and the more the better. Diversity is good. Nutritionally, it's good, neurologically, it's good culturally.

SIMON: Ian Brennan, Grammy Award-winning producer - his latest project is "We Are An Island, But We Are Not Alone."

Thank you so much for being with us.

BRENNAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMORIAN SONG, "MAMA (ONCE, WE HAD A QUEEN)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.