It’s a balmy evening in the 17th least developed country in the world. From a wooden stage dreadlocked reggae artist Sally Nyundo calls out: “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” The crowd sways. Crickets and monkeys chatter in the surrounding trees. Spirits are both high and cheap. This is Malawian festival Lake of Stars, and it posits a question: why do Western celebrities donate schools or give money or adopt babies from developing countries, but never play gigs in them?
Challenging the status quo, this event was first organised in 2003 by British Will Jameson, who says his relationship with the country began accidentally.“Malawi was kind of chosen for me. I was going to go to Australia or New Zealand (on my gap year), but they were all full, so they said Malawi, and I said where the hell was that?”
Jameson thinks that the best way to combat the negative perception of Africa is through arts and music. “There’s a thriving middle-class and some of the fastest growing economies are in Africa and if we can get the celebrities and the artists to back things like this, that’s the best way of saying that these countries are doing positive things. Rather than Madonna going in trying to build schools we’re saying OK, this country can host something. It’s a world-class venue.”
During 2010’s festival, the Malawian tourism minister skydived onto the lake shore before issuing a commandment. “Malawi does not want to be known as the place where Madonna adopts babies. This is a country with swagger. I hereby issue a ministerial directive ordering everyone to enjoy themselves.”
Here the colour scheme is different. The earth is dusty red, the sky is bright blue. Musicians mix with attendees mix with musicians: planning future collaborations, handing out new CDs. One of the most notable differences between the local and international acts is the origins of their instruments. Proudly wielding homemade guitars, the Malawi Mouse Boys – so called because they divide their time between creating music and catching and barbecuing rodents – also percuss on plastic bowls and Coke cans. After their set they declare their intention to come to Ireland, with part-time salesman Josef promising “When we visit we are going to bring mice. They are nice. When you get that animal and eat it, ah you feel good.”
As Kenyan band Sauti Sol emerge in black and dedicate a song to their fellow citizens killed in the Westgate Mall attacks, a sense of unity seems ubiquitous. We are all the same; we are sharing this experience; we exist under an identical sky.
Plus, if you live by the mantra that happens at a festival stays at a festival, this country’s relative anonymity is ideal. “In terms of these events it’s perfect because it’s stable, warm, friendly,” Jameson says. “It’s not a huge country either, so for travelling around you could see a lot and do a lot in two or three weeks.”
This year South African hip hop artist Reason, Zimbabwe’s Tariro neGitare, and Kenyan Afro-house DJ Jack Rooster will perform, along with the UK’s Cable Street Collective and many more. The festival also includes a programme of comedy, theatre, exhibitions and speakers, and a conference that gathers together artists and development workers to discuss how to use culture and the arts to empower a country where 61% of the population live on less than €1 per day.
Travelling to the airport, long after the stages have been dismantled and the volunteers disbanded, my taxi-driver asked me what my favourite type of music is. “Mine is blues music… like Westlife!” he added, and pulled out a Coast to Coast CD. When I asked him whether the band had ever played in the country, he laughed. “Malawi is too poor for Westlife.”
Lake of Stars might be missing the biggest lights, but its atmosphere contradicted his conviction. You can never be too poor for music.
Lake of Stars takes place this weekend in Mangochi, Malawi. Tickets are 31,000MK (about €58).