Counting the stars at Malawi's lakeside music festival
The sun-bleached sands of Lake Malawi play host to one of the most memorable musical gatherings in the world, the Lake of Stars Festival. Malawi has long been known as the warm heart of Africa, but every September as the festival cranks up the volume, the lakeside really hots up. To get you into the mood for 2015's show (25-27 September), here is our report from last year.
History and setting
The Lake of Stars Festival (lakeofstars.org) began life back in 2003 as British club owner and promoter Will Jameson sought to raise the profile of Malawi and its music on the international stage. As Will told Lonely Planet at the festival, the motivation was “a desire to raise money for a developing economy, help promote Malawi as a tourist destination and expose Malawian artists to an international audience.” Judging by the diverse crowd that swayed on the sands, this part of the mission has been a spectacular success, with 70 acts from 15 countries performing to more than 4000 revellers.
Staged on the shores of the Sunbird Nkopola Lodge in Mangochi District at the southern end of Lake Malawi, the festival is not far from the backpacker beacon of Cape Maclear. The setting is always breathtaking, with the cobalt clear waters of the lake shimmering under the sun and the mountains of Malawi and Mozambique visible across the water. Pinch yourself, this is not the Caribbean, but Malawi, one of the lesser-known gems of this incredible continent, boasting beautiful beaches that defy its landlocked location. It’s Womad without the wellies, Glastonbury on the sand, with sunshine almost guaranteed.
Friday gets the party started
The festival kicked off on Friday with soulful singer George Kalukusha on the main stage. A larger than life personality, George has shades of Tracy Chapman and Jack Johnson and is destined to be the next big thing out of Malawi, although his life has taken a detour via Milton Keynes.
South African rapper Reason whipped the crowd into a frenzy after dark in readiness for his headline compatriots Mafikizolo. Both Reason and Mafikizolo took a few years out of music, but the festival crowd were ecstatic to see them out of retirement and at the Lake of Stars for the first time. Mafikizolo stole the show with a slickly choreographed set, but not before local stars Sally Nyendo had the crowd crooning along to their classics.
Hitting its stride on Saturday
For the Malawian masses, Saturday is the big day of the festival without the hindrance of Friday at the office or the Monday morning blues. The crowd arrived in numbers from Lilongwe and Blantyre and the Sunbird Nkopolo soon felt like Hugh Hefner’s mansion had washed up on the shores of usually conservative Malawi.
Down on the Village Stage, hosting community acts, acoustic sets and local NGOs, the kids of Amitofo Kung Fu put on a dazzling display of martial arts, acrobatics and performance that could earn them a cameo in The Karate Kid. The beachside TNM Stage provided the chill during the heat of the day and the homegrown, all-girl, five-piece Daughter’s Band struck a chord with the local crowd.
As day turned to night, Malawi MC Tay Grin took to the main DHLstage. He had already rocked the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and was invited to perform at the BAFTA Awards later that month in London. The audience was well and truly charged by his high-octane performance and he set the stage for Scottish electro rap-rockers Stanley Odd. As they launched into their act with abandon, there were hints of House of Pain or Chumbawamba as MC Solareye got the audience bouncing and kept them on their toes with anthems like ‘Get Out Ma Headspace’. Cut the rap, it was then time for the Blantyre-based Black Missionaries. The headline act brought some peace and love to the main stage with their homegrown Rastafarian reggae.
Sundowners on Sunday
Sunday kicked off with a sundowner session from the South African live mixers Christian Tiger Collective. At first glance at the program, revelers might have thought they were in for a religious choir, but the block-rockin’ beats from this duo were more bass than mass.
Malawi megastars Body, Mind & Soul played a tight set mixing funk, blues, jazz, soul and reggae with Malawian music in a unique blend they have called ‘voodjaz’. Led by Davie Luhanga aka Street Rat, this band has a following beyond Malawi and won the Music Crossroads Festival in Zimbabwe back in 2007.
South African band John Wizards rocked out the festival as the last live act on the bill. Gaining ground in the world music scene, they draw influences from reggae to rumba via R ‘n’ B. Their single ‘Lusaka By Night’ set the crowd swaying, suggesting a healthy contingent from Zambia or perhaps a little too much to drink in the sun.
Brit underground DJ Goldierocks by night, Sam Hall by day, was back to close the festival, having formed a close relationship with the Lake of Stars in recent years. As well as slots on Radio 1, she has played festivals from Glastonbury to Ibiza Rocks with her original blend of bassy remixes and wonky electro. From performance art to stage diving, this is no ordinary DJ set and Goldierocks brought the curtain down on the eclectic blend of Malawian music, African megastars and international bright young things that is the Lake of Stars.
Coping with the post-festival comedown
Malawi is one of the most traveller-friendly destinations in all of Africa, so shrug off the festival hangover with an adventure in the nearby national parks, or take in the city of Blantyre.
Liwonde National Park
Liwonde is home to the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo), although you are unlikely to encounter the predators. Huge numbers of elephants, hippos and crocs are all visible on a relaxing river safari.
Majete Wildlife Reserve
The king is back. Majete saw the reintroduction of lions in 2012 and is now the best place to see these majestic hunters in action, although it can be very hot in September.
This other-worldly landscape is said to have inspired JRR Tolkien in his depiction of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Locals believe its haunted, but for adventurous trekkers it rewards with haunting scenery.
Fly the flag for festivals in Malawi with a short hop to the second city for the Blantyre Arts Festival which usually takes place immediately after the Lake of Stars.
Getting there and away
Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com) offers the best connections to Malawi via its hub in Nairobi, including regular flights to Lilongwe and Blantyre.
From Lilongwe and Blantyre, the festival organises shuttle buses to the venue from the airports and partner hotels and lodges. Or take public transport to the nearest town (Mangochi) and charter from there.
One tip to remember is that chartered vehicles are expensive to hire for long distances. Rent a hire car and driver through a local firm and pay for petrol as you go.