The City of Stars festival in Malawi, a two-day celebration of the arts in the capital of Lilongwe, featured 50 acts from across the globe - including a sizeable Scottish contingent. Gillian Provan finds the African nation’s cultural and historic ties to Scotland renewed at the festival’s 10th anniversary
As one of the poorest countries in the world, the sights of Malawi are more likely to be seen in pages of charity appeals than travel brochures. Visitors to the south east African nation will typically be volunteering at one of Malawi’s overpopulated hospitals or orphanages ravaged by Aids/HIV rather than soaking up the music or cultural scene.
But for two long, hot and dusty days, artists and tourists from around the world descended on the country’s capital Lilongwe for a dynamic programme of music, poetry, film, comedy, dance and theatre.
An early afternoon festival show is a tough break for any performer – particularly if you’re going on the laidback African approach to timekeeping, which means you can expect at least a 45 minute delay to the scheduled slot.
But the Amahoro Drummers made sure there was a sense of passion and urgency to City of Stars from the off, ditching the stage in favour of an intimate performance on the grass. Dressed in the red, white and green traditional colours of Burundi and with big drums and even bigger smiles, the 20-strong group fused their music with energetic dance moves and chants.
While there’s an undoubtedly local feel to City of Stars, you only have to queue for a drink at the bar to come across a Scottish accent. Performances from Glasgow’s Auntie Flo and Edinburgh’s Bwani Junction, and the presence of high-profile festival organisers Donald Shaw from Celtic Connections and T in the Park’s Geoff Ellis in the audience made it feel like a home away from home.
Through funding from Creative Scotland, and manager Gordon Muir’s connections with legendary African band the Bhunda Boys, Edinburgh band Bwani Junction borrowed instruments, battled hangovers and technical difficulties to make it to the warm heart of Africa for the unique event.
Their Malawian adventures kicked off with a gig at a local bar, an experience which was full of surprises, as guitarist Dan Muir explains.
“We went straight to the bar to play and it turns out there’s a Scotsman there playing Psycho Killer [from Talking Heads’ debut album in 1977] with a Scotland flag draped over the stage. We were pretty knackered, a bit drunk and were playing with a bunch of random instruments, but it was fine.”
Ahead of their set on the main stage the quartet got an insight into the struggles of local musicians with a workshop at Lilongwe college Music Crossroads. Lead singer Rory Fairweather admits it’s a jamming session that will stick in their minds forever as he’s attacked by giant moths at the festival’s venue the Sanctuary.
“They have this incredible talent and they are working away doing great things in this township, but few people will get the chance to hear them. They were grilling us on what we could play but we were nowhere near as good as them and they were playing on really basic instruments.”
The visit made such an impact on the band that they leave their only piece of equipment, a £500 drum pedal, with the Music Crossroads musicians.
The Edinburgh quartet went on to win over an audience of all ages and ethnicities on the City of Stars main stage. As the only rock group on a bill of artists hailing from Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Norway, you might think Bwani Junction would have a tough time of it, but the crowds danced like they were lifelong fans.
This was a festival like no other I’d been to. I would never dream of going to a UK festival on my own, but at the City of Stars there was no such thing as a stranger. Everyone took the time to get to know the person they were standing beside. Bien Aime Baraza of Kenyan R&B supergroup Sauti Sol bought us lowly Scottish journalists drinks at the bar, and we were swapping tourist tips with festival icons Geoff Ellis and Donald Shaw.
Looking at the schedule to see Malawian poet Qabaniso ‘Q’ Malewezi and London spoken word icon George the Poet performing on the main stage looked like a potential disaster to me, but their words have crowds cheering, and at times in tears – a feat that would be difficult to achieve at any other festival.
For Friday night headliners Brian d’Souza aka Auntie Flo and Highlife collaborator Esa Williams, the festival’s been about discovering new sounds and influences.
The duo, who met in Glasgow, rummaged for African cassette tapes at markets and sought inspiration from village life on a whirlwind trip to the scenic Lake Malawi in between a busy weekend of sets.
Esa said: “Before you come here you’ve got all these warnings about malaria and that you need to take this tablet and take that vaccine, and when you get here you see there’s so much more to it.
“It was an incredible experience getting to see the routine in the village. We’re used to having our breakfast, lunch and dinner but most of these people wake up go to the farms or fields then come home for their one meal of the day.”
The Malawi gigs follow a number of shows in Esa’s native South Africa with a big homecoming show in Cape Town.
Scotland’s prominence at this year’s festival may look coincidental, but it was something festival founder Will Jameson deliberately set out to achieve to tie in with the 200th celebrations of the birth of Doctor David Livingstone.
The place names Blantyre and Livingstonia merely hint at the impact the explorer and adventurer has had on Malawi. Livingstone is also credited for championing the abolition of the slave trade and bringing the three Cs - Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation - to the region.
It’s humbling to hear the passion and devotion Malawians have for this often forgotten missionary.
“We remember what he did for us in Malawi and we learn about him in history at school,” up-and-coming Lilongwe musician Jaco-Jana told me. “We loved Dr Livingstone, he really loved Malawi and he really loved Africa and he was our father.”
This unique bond between countries thousands of miles apart was strengthened once more through the festival, and I’m sure we could see a Malawian musician or two on the bill at next year’s T in the Park and Celtic Connections festivals.
There’s no such thing as just standing and nodding along to the music at City of Stars. A short set from Malawian R&B band Kuyenda erupts into a mass conga line, with the audience weaving in and out of the trees along to the beat. Even the music being played as the crew move equipment on and off the stage gets a reaction.
Glowsticks seem to appear from nowhere. When darkness hits suddenly at 6pm, seeing crowds shaking and shimmying in made the festival feel like a nightclub.
But, if there was one standout moment at City of Stars, it was perhaps the performance of rap group One Lord Records. Just as my mind began to wander, the posse’s bouncing and hand gestures gave way to two ballet dancers, who pirouetted and passéd in this most unlikely setting. This mad moment summed up City of Stars, a festival full of surprises that’s sure to leave a lasting impression on all the performers and festival-goers who attended it.
“Seeing the Malawi musicians with such a big passion for the music was quite humbling,” Bwani Junction’s Jack Fotheringham said.
“Obviously we love playing music together as a band, but sometimes you forget it’s a universal language and it’s not all about trying to play at Wembley, it’s about getting a group together and having a collective experience.”
• For more information about City of Stars, visit lakeofstars.org