The midday sun was creeping higher into the searing blue African sky last Saturday as I was sheltering under the sweet shade of a baobab tree, wondering what to do with my day at the Lake of Stars festival in Malawi. There was a banquet on offer—a golden sandy beach, a brilliantly clear freshwater lake that stretched for miles, a bar full of cold beers, and a beach stage with a crowd slowly gathering around it. I wandered over to the stage to see what was going on and found some adorable children in homemade costumes about to do a performance. Unfortunately, I got a bit of a nasty shock as I sat down to watch them. The kids were cute, sure. But my heart plummeted when they started singing the "Circle of Life." As I looked around to see my fellow white people singing their hearts out and filming the African children sing countless Elton John hits, I cringed so hard I thought my forehead was going to explode. That's right; I was watching primary school kids in southeast Africa perform Disney's The Lion King. I'm not sure I've ever hated myself more.
Thankfully, this story isn't representative of my time at Lake of Stars. The three-day music and arts festival in northern Malawi mainly involved dancing to outstanding music and swimming in an idyllic lake. But it also encapsulated the ongoing challenge the festival and its British founder faces: hosting an event that is simultaneously culturally sensitive, positively contributes to Malawi's global development, and is run to the standard of other international music festivals. Putting on Lake of Stars is not for the faint-hearted then—particularly considering that according to a World Bank analysis of GDI per capita last year, Malawi is the poorest country in the world. Tourism is seen as a possible game-changer—the sector generated 7.3% to Malawi's economy in 2014—but is struggling due to lack of funding and infrastructure. The stakes couldn't be much higher.
Founder Will Jameson visited Malawi when he was 18 doing the usual volunteer teacher gig, but left dreaming of going back—and bringing a crew with him to enjoy and contribute to the country in a positive way. He went on to set up an electronic music night in Liverpool (named after Malawian beer Chibuku Shake Shake), hosting the likes of Gilles Peterson and Mr Scruff. From this, Lake of Stars was born—although Jameson told THUMP that getting his home audience to buy in wasn't easy.
"In 2004, the first year we did it, Andy Cato DJed for us at Chibuku with Groove Armada, and I was telling him about the [Lake of Stars] idea. He said: 'Look, we've never toured in Africa, never even really considered it, but if you cover the flight I'll come and do it for free.' And then all these people who before had been really doubtful as to how it would work—asking 'where's Malawi? Is it safe?'—were suddenly on board."
Twelve years later, Lake of Stars continues to power through in style, enticing party tourists from Malawi, Africa and the rest of the world to the shores of Lake Malawi. Promoting tourism is a priority for the Malawian Government. And you can see its draw—close to other popular destinations on the safari circuit such as South Africa and Zambia, Malawi is a country of extreme natural beauty, and despite its struggling economy, is politically stable, safe, and all-round friendly.
So the 800 non-Malawian visitors—34 percent of the total audience—which Lake of Stars brought to Malawi last year was a big win. These tourists bring much needed revenue to the country (according to the festival $1,468,119 million was generated in 2015) which many local businesspeople benefit from, from hotels in the city to the street vendors selling their wares in and in an allocated space before the entrance to the site. One Londoner I spoke to explained that he hadn't been to Africa before, but he had decided to come to Lake of Stars (and travel to Zambia afterwards) with some mates to see their friend DJ. "I've had my mind totally blown here," he told me.
Everything was diverse about this festival. From the multicultural audience (I met people from China, Norway, the US and South Africa) to a lineup spanning German techno to Malawian folk, Afro-house to South African kwela. In my experience, in many Sub-Saharan African countries—Malawi included—clubbing can be quite divided, with the white tourists and NGO types going to certain clubs, and locals sticking to others. But it felt like Lake of Stars broke down this barrier, and as a result the vibe was exciting, free, and not quite like anything I've experienced before.
The barrier was also broken by the many artistic collaborations which happen at or around the event. Charitable record label Beating Heart put this at the forefront of this year's festival, involving Malawian and international artists in their project using an African music archive for contemporary mixes, with proceeds going to a nutrition project at a school in capital city Lilongwe. I sat in on a completely magical recording of a collaboration between British producer Nico Bentley from Afriquoi and "one-man band" from Malawi Faith Mussa, who sang lyrics about a borderless world in his language and played a guitar followed by a traditional instrument known locally as a mphenenga which was made from a fruit and sounded a bit like a kazoo.
From power blackouts to dusty sound equipment, the fact that the festival operates in a challenging environment also added to this atmosphere of us all being in it together. Jammo from Bristol DJ duo My Nu Leng smashed it with a grimy, bass-heavy heavy set which also managed to keep it accessible for all, mixing both a track sampling traditional Malawian music and well-known bangers such as Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot." This was despite an issue with a USB port which meant the Beating Heart DJs had to hop on and help, but this was nice to see—one of them blew on the decks and a huge puff of dust drifted out into the audience, and towards the end they all hugged it out on stage after the eventful set.
It's not just festival-goers that Lake of Stars is looking to reach out to, either. Will Jameson helped Congolese musician and refugee Menes La Plume set up a sister festival at Malawi's Dzaleka refugee camp. Despite being around for over two decades and being home to 20,000 refugees, La Plume explained that "many Malawians are unaware the camp even exists" and the refugee community remain marginalized. But Tumaini festival seeks to change this and profile the camp's artists—and at Lake of Stars this year there were three refugee acts on the lineup, including the entrancing Amahoro Drummers from Burundi.
But how does Lake of Stars engage with the local community where the festival is held? This year it came in the form of a massive community concert on the Thursday, and a "Day of Ideas" on the Friday for around 500 local young people, with creative workshops, talks, and speed networking followed by mini-performances from some of the festival's artists. I spoke to university student Madalo Banda who ran a workshop aiming to "use creative writing as a means to come up with solutions for problems we see in society." Banda told me that she sees Lake of Stars as a great platform for Malawian youth. "It brings different people together from different corners of the planet," she said. "Local people are able to showcase their talents—their art, their cooking skills, their tailoring skills."
She did admit Lake of Stars could be doing more to increase access to the festival for Malawians, though. Festival tickets bought in-country are cheap by international standards at about $38, but this is nearly double a month's salary for someone earning the minimum wage in Malawi (around $20 a month). Member of local dance group Paka Town Band Sharks also raised this issue. "My friends want to come to see the music, but it is too expensive," he said. "They could offer at least a discount [for locals]. That would be better."
It's hard to measure the impact of using music and the arts as a tool for international development, but it's undeniable that the ability of this festival to inspire the young people who attend is pretty special. Lake of Stars put on a banging party while managing to reconcile cultural sensitivity with development—and it did so by keeping creativity at the festival's core. On the Sunday, while I was again lying down under a tree, I heard a choir ringing out. It turned out to be a performance by some girls from an orphanage whose food garden is funded by the Beating Heart project. As the sun went down later in the day, I saw them again—this time rocking out at the front of the main stage along with everyone else.