Lilongwe is not a scenic city, and not one where tourists linger for very long. Lilongwe in September is hot and dry, and characterized by the terracotta-brown dirt which dominates everything that isn’t paved, built up or landscaped. There is nothing very attractive about this sleepy capital city and it certainly is not the ideal location for a vibrant international music and arts festival. Yet during the weekend of September 27-29, Lilongwe exploded with colour and music. Visitors from around the world trudged through the brown dirt to the Sanctuary Lodge to attend the City of Stars festival, a new initiative from the Lake of Stars Music and Arts Project.
The announcement that, after a break in 2012, the annual Lake of Stars festival, usually held on the shores of Lake Malawi, would take place in the capital city was met with scepticism. The line-up consisted of relatively unknown artists and no big international headline acts (in previous years headliners included Foals, Noisettes, Giles Peterson, The Maccabees, Joe Goddard (Hot Chip), Scratch Perverts, Andy Cato (Groove Armada) and DJ Yoda). Rumours circulated that the festival organisers didn’t have enough money and that holding a smaller, city-based festival was the best they could do after a one-year hiatus. But those who attended the City of Stars last weekend were not disappointed. They witnessed an unforgettable coming together of cultures, and experienced the warm Malawian hospitality that gives the country its nickname: the Warm Heart of Africa.
Dispelling the rumours, the festival’s founder, British Will Jameson, explained that holding it in the city was a way of refocusing the festival’s main goal: to generate international interest in Malawi and the Malawian people. It was the latter that he really wanted to focus on this year. Jameson’s aim since he launched the Lake of Stars Project in 2003 has been to promote Malawi as a tourist destination. The lake brings in the majority of Malawi’s tourism and in previous years this idyllic location was one of the festival’s main attractions. But Jameson chose to take a risk for the sake of his cause and organized a smaller and genuinely Malawian festival this year.
Though smaller and more subdued, the spotlight this year was on emerging talent from Malawi. Featuring performances from acoustic bands such as the Malawi Mouse Boys, whose soulful, swaying gospel rhythms are just starting to attract international attention, to the Malawian-Swedish-British trio, The Very Best, whose wild stage antics and catchy electronic tunes had the crowd jumping on Saturday night, the City of Stars showcased the diversity of Malawian music. To emphasize the importance of cultivating the arts in Malawi, the 2013 festival was preceded by several weeks of satellite concerts, conferences and other events in Lilongwe, bringing together artists, politicians, and national and international arts organizations.
The festival also successfully diverted attention away from Malawi’s public image of being a small, poor country with a big HIV problem, and highlighted the passionate yet humble and welcoming nature of its people.
What was truly remarkable about the City of Stars was the way in which Malawians, other African nationals, Westerners and artists could come together as people. The cultural prejudices and economic hierarchies that lurk under the surface of any society were non-existent, which created a relaxed and completely unpretentious atmosphere. People of all ages and cultures talked, ate, drank and danced together in what felt less like a typical music festival and more like a garden party in Malawi’s backyard.
Lineup highlights (my favourites):
Malawi Mouse Boys
The Very Best
Peter Mawanga (Alinafe!)
George the Poet
Amahorro Drumming Group (Burundi)