Acclaimed Field-Recording Producer Ian Brennan Captures The Oldest Voices in the World

Article Contributed by JP Cutler Media | Published on Friday, February 3, 2023

GRAMMY Award-winning music producer and lauded field-recording trailblazer Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, Zomba Prison Project, Ustad Saami) continues his acclaimed recording career of over 50 releases with the first album ever made featuring the wisdom and voices of those over 100 years old. The Oldest Voice in the World (Azerbaijan) "Thank you for bringing me back to the sky" (Six Degrees Records, Release Date: April 7, 2023) takes Brennan and his wife, Italian-Rwandan filmmaker and photographer Marilena Umuhoza Delli to the remote villages of the "long-livers" just miles from the Iran border. 22 pieces comprise the album with five bonus tracks featuring artists that Brennan has collaborated with over his acclaimed career: The Kronos Quartet, Tinariwen, Malawi Mouse Boys, Yuka Honda, and The Good Ones (Rwanda).

The Conception of The Oldest Voice in the World (Azerbaijan) "Thank you for bringing me back to the sky" In late 2021, Brennan and Delli traveled to the southern mountains of Azerbaijan, where legend has it that the world's oldest man hailed from there -- having survived to age 168. Brennan and Delli made the ambitious excursion amid a coincidental deluge of social media trends going public on the best practices for "staying young." Visiting rural villages to capture the heart of the under-represented population of the oldest people on earth, the centenarians' stories eloquently came to life and serve as an anti-ageism antidote.

Upon their arrival in Azerbaijan, villagers had been ravaged by COVID-19 and most residents over 100 had sadly died in recent months, including the oldest known woman in the country. Traversing from village to village, they came to discover centenarian after centenarian living without indoor plumbing, sleeping on floor-bound mattresses, and what seemed to Brennan, that they were almost anticipating their arrival with such a warm reception by the Talysh people.

Brennan is renowned for scouring the far stretches of the globe to document singers in an uninhibited, authentic fashion. From recordings in regions such as Rwanda, Malawi, South Sudan, Karachi, Comoros, Palestine, Ukerewe Island, Cambodia, and Romania, this latest project brings him to a region where no outsiders ever wander. The villages were so remote, Brennan's Azerbaijani speaking companion from the city advised that the locals’ words were completely unintelligible. And even the Talysh speaker from the valley below could only make out less than 80% of what was being said in the remote mountain villages.

As they began meeting the centenarians, one theme was ever-present once they sang. Most would sing of their mother, and their secret to life was simple, "I was loved." Voices were recorded in their natural living environments. For instrumentation along with their voices, Brennan used the wood-burning furnace providing heat for the house, a walker, their own footsteps, a broken bedroom door, or the farm flour grinder.

"The texture of their singing was as if they had voices featuring distortion boxes built by time," says Ian Brennan. "While recording, I removed my headphones more than once thinking there was some malfunction in the machinery, only to realize that what I was hearing was the singer's pure tone. This project was a rare instance in music where the majority of people did not make the cut due to being too young -- a mere ninety or eighty-six failed to impress."

Brennan and Delli experienced raw emotion from the centenarians. A former shepherd was singing and became overcome and shakily stood up to leave the room after having sung a song that his mother used to sing. Brennan recalls, "We feared our visit had caused him unnecessary upset. But when he returned, he beamed, grabbed my hand and kissed it repeatedly, and said 'Thank you for bringing me back to the sky.'"

About Ian Brennan

Ian Brennan is a GRAMMY Award-winning music producer (Zomba Prison Project, Tinariwen) and author of six books. Since 1993 he has taught violence prevention for such prestigious organizations as the University of London, UC Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome). His latest and seventh book is Muse-$ick: a music manifesto in fifty-nine notes [PM Press, 2021]. He has worked with artists as diverse as Fugazi, country legend Merle Haggard, Sleater-Kinney, and filmmaker John Waters. In the past decade, Brennan has produced 38 records by international artists from three continents (Africa, Europe, Asia), which have resulted in the first widely-released original music albums from many nations, among them Rwanda, Malawi, Romania, Comoros, South Sudan, and Vietnam. His work has been featured on the front-page of The New York Times, PBS television, and in an Emmy Award-winning segment of 60 Minutes with reporter Anderson Cooper.

The Oldest Voice in the World (Azerbaijan) "Thank you for bringing me back to the sky"
Six Degrees Records (April 7, 2023)

Track Listing:

1. My Life Is Good, It Is Like a Flower
2. Mother, Why Did You Leave Me So Soon?
3. Son, Don't Go There, the Road Is Dangerous
4. My Mother Lived to Be 110
5. Bulbul (Nightingale)
6. Mother, When Will You Come for Me?
7. The Young Men are Sent to Die in the Rich Man's Wars
8. After My Grandson's Death, I Can No Longer Play the Flute
9. You Are a Flower Yet To Grow
10. Shepherd Song
11. Memory
12. Desolation
13. The Secret to Life: I Worked Hard & Ate Butter
14. Lullaby
15. The Secret to Life: I Was Loved
16. Pepe, Pepe (Donkey Song)
17. Screaming from the Mountaintop for My Son to Return
18. Since My Son Has Died the Loss Has Been Too Much to Bear
19. There Was Very Little to Eat During the War
20. The Secret to Life: Eat Lots of Butter
21. My Life Is as Long as a Tree, Like a Stone in the River
22. Memories of My Mother
Bonus 1: Talysh Mountain Border, The Oldest Voice with Kronos Quartet
Bonus 2: Prayers Overheard, The Oldest Voice with Yuka Honda
Bonus 3: Ghosts, The Oldest Voice with Tinariwen
Bonus 4: A Lifetime Still, The Oldest Voice with The Good Ones (Rwanda)
Bonus 5: Not Goodbye, The Oldest Voice with Malawi Mouse Boys

Produced, engineered & mixed by Ian Brennan
All photos, video & executive producer: Marilena Umuhoza Delli
Mastered by John Golden
Recorded 100% live and without overdubs