FOR the Scottish musicians, writers and artists who took part in this year’s Lake of Stars festival in Malawi, the experience was far more than just another gig.
It’s 7:30pm on Saturday, nearly two hours after sunset, and it still feels swelteringly hot on the western shore of Lake Malawi. The white sand is warm underfoot. The lake is still and the sky is clear. You can see across the water to neighbouring Mozambique, where just a few lights flicker along the coastline.
Turn around and the view is a lot livelier. Around 3,000 people have gathered on the beach, in front of the bamboo-built main stage of the 2014 Lake of Stars festival. The crowd is woozy. They’ve spent all day drinking Malawian gin, and listening to the intoxicating rhythms of Africa’s biggest and best bands. Now, though, they’re gathering their energies for the arrival of a different sound; a sound rarely heard in Sub-Saharan Africa; a sound that should up the festival ante.
There’s a crackle, and the speakers burst into life:“When I wake up, well, I know I’m gonna be I’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you…”
Yes, it’s The Proclaimers. No, they’re not playing live. But their hit is the DJ’s warm-up track for the Edinburgh band that is... Stanley Odd. The six-piece hip-hop act have travelled a long way to be here, and are making the journey count; putting everything into this once-in-a-lifetime performance. Sweat-drenched frontman Dave Hook bounces on stage like a beach ball, inciting the crowd to join in with his pogoing, then getting them involved in a bit of call-and-response.
“When I say ‘Stanley’, you say ‘Odd’. ‘Stanley!’” A mighty chorus of “Odd!” rises above the sand. It turns out that politically charged Caledonian rap-rock, delivered in a thick Edinburgh brogue, goes down a treat in Malawi. “We love you guys!” shouts Hook. There are whoops in response. “We were told Malawi’s the warm heart of Africa, and that feels really genuine.”
It’s not every day that a Scotsman causes such a fuss in the Great Rift Valley. But then, there is a precedent. Around 1860 David Livingstone became the first Westerner to reach the shore of Lake Malawi, his heart full of God-given purpose: to explore the body of water which he nicknamed “The Lake of Stars”, promote the abolition of slavery and convert the locals to Christianity. Stanley Odd’s motivation isn’t religious, or even – despite their referendum-inflected rap – political. In fact, their visit forms part of a broader, and more chilled-out Scotland-Malawi relationship – one that was established by Livingstone in the 19th century, but now thrives on the spirit of creative collaboration. “It has two phases,” Hook tells me. “Its old imperial history, and its healthier recent history. I think it’s brilliant that Malawi’s so in Scotland’s consciousness.”
Watching Stanley Odd’s performance are two of Malawi’s most popular emcees, best-selling Tay Grin and Esau Mwamwaya of crossover dance act The Very Best. They found their way into Scotland’s consciousness during the Commonwealth Games, when both artists joined Stanley Odd onstage at a special concert on Glasgow Green. “Scottish hip-hop really resonates with me,” says Tay Grin (real name Limbani Kalilani). “It’s like Malawian hip-hop – it feels authentic.”
It’s not only Stanley Odd who are impressing in Africa, however. The band make up only half of the dozen talented Scots who Creative Scotland have helped bring to Malawi this year – a diverse group of festival participants including visual artist Rabiya Choudhry, filmmaker Matt Hulse and poet Michael Pedersen.
“It’s a bit of a cultural exchange,” says festival director Will Jameson. An Englishman, he founded Lake of Stars in 2004, having worked in Malawi on his gap year. “Scotland’s a world leader in tourism and arts which are industries worth billions. Malawi could definitely learn from that,” he says.
With over half of its 16 million citizens living in poverty, Malawi is one of the poorest nations on the planet. Tourism offers the country a significant boost, with Lake of Stars alone generating an estimated £1million for the economy. The festival also aims to help the local villages, running outreach projects that bring ordinary Malawians (for whom the £45 weekend ticket price is a small fortune) into the fold.
The festival atmosphere is supremely relaxed, with punters partying until sunrise within the confines of an idyllic beachside hotel complex. Everyone wears beaming smiles – especially the artists, who are thrilled to be playing to an influential audience. Outside the gates, however, there are tens of Malawian children who have less to grin about. They call through gaps in the perimeter fence, asking festival-goers to donate their empty plastic water bottles, which can be sold on for 20 Malawian kwacha (around 3p).
The Lake of Stars organisers run trips to local orphanages in nearby Chipoka village, so that tourists can understand the difficult realities of life in rural Malawi, and pass on gifts such as books and clothes. In Stanley Odd’s case, the band donate a heap of musical instruments and equipment to the kids, after which they take them on at football (the shoeless Malawians running rings around the Scots, who fall to a 2-0 defeat).
It’s the Scottish contingent’s art and ideas, however, which will form their most lasting contributions – like Rabiya Choudhry’s artwork, drawn at the festival, then donated to one of the local orphanages. It depicts the sole (or ‘soul’) of a giant foot, emblazoned with Livingstone’s motto, “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward,” as well as the Malawian word for thank you, “zikomo”. Or Matt Hulse’s wonderfully atmospheric short films, which have been projected onto a big screen by the main stage between the acts. Or poet and Neu! Reekie! founder Michael Pedersen’s readings on the more intimate Village Stage. His earlier performance followed that of a legendary Malawian poet, Q Malewezi, whose words called for immediate, almost revolutionary change in the Malawian regime.
“A lot of Malawians in the audience referred to Q as their brother,” Pedersen says. “And I, gullibly, interjected with, ‘Oh so you’re related then?’ They said, ‘No he speaks to a lot of the people. We see a brotherhood through his words and his language and his passion.’”
If there’s one thing that binds a drizzly, relatively rich nation with a scorched, shockingly poor one, it’s passion. Pedersen agrees: “There are obviously such stark differences. But you start to look for the similarities. There seems to be a kind of welcoming humanity which we have in common.”
From a Scottish perspective, there are things to be learnt from Malawi, as well as shared. “It isn’t just one-way,” says Dave Hook. So what has he learned? “Showmanship, definitely. We’ve always had an energetic live show. What I’ve learnt is to really commit, because you can’t do things by halves out here.”
At the end of Stanley Odd’s set Tay Grin and Esau Mwamwaya jump onstage again, as they did in Glasgow, to join in with the band’s last few numbers. The crowd roars their approval. You might expect these performers to go together like chalk and a Tunnock’s teacake. But, for whatever reason, the Scotland-Malawi connection really works.
The man dancing next to me seems to agree. He has walked for seven months to make it to the festival, but he’s still got the energy to bop along. He started out from South Africa back in February. That’s 500 miles, then 500 more, then an extra 1,000 miles on top of that – enthusiasm even The Proclaimers would struggle to match.