Lake of stars - Music without barriers

Held on the shores of Lake Malawi, the Lake of Stars festival thrives on a spirit of unity. David Taylor celebrates its beats and beauty alike

Friday 20 November 2009 01:00

As venues go, it's going to take something rather special to top this. I'm stood on the sandy shores of Lake Malawi, gentle waves lapping the beach, the night sky liberally peppered with twinkling stars reflected in the blue-black water. Even though it's past 10pm, anything more than shorts and a T-shirt is unbearable. Flip-flops are essential.

I'm here, along with around 3,500 other lucky souls, to experience the Lake of Stars festival. It's the sixth year of the event, which began life with a collection of British DJs playing beats to backpackers and has grown exponentially since. Today, two lakeside stages play host to the cream of Malawi's musicians, alongside Western DJs and a handful of UK bands over four days. It's an intriguing melting pot of music, which at times is as breathtaking as the picture-book surroundings.

Take the Makambale Brothers. The four-piece hail from Lilongwe, the country's capital, and create looping melodies that it's impossible not to dance to. Look closer and their guitars are constructed from oil cans with bicycle brake-cable strings, the bass appears to be cobbled together from a suitcase and the drums are augmented with beer-bottle-cap cymbals. They might be singing traditional songs in Chichewa but compelling music transcends language barriers. Lucius Banda, the country's best-known singer, doesn't disappoint either. From a heartfelt, bellowed greeting of "Welcome to Malawi", the ebullient, larger-than-life character whips the biggest crowd of the festival so far into a frenzy, helped by three dancers whose seductive, energetic writhing and posturing ramps the soaring temperature higher. Even though his acrobats' fire show is quickly snuffed out by the stage manager, who mercifully has one eye on the wooden stage draped with flammable flags, this doesn't dampen the crowd's enthusiasm for his catchy Afro-reggae set.

The Malawi rapper Tay Grin puts on a hugely impressive show with drummers and masked dancers in traditional costumes. His rhymes and delivery stand out in that he doesn't try and be yet another US-accented Kanye clone but instead fuses African and Western influences to create a fresh, unique style. Likewise, the Black Missionaries, the most-anticipated Malawian band among the Western crowd, perform a stunning set. Their positive roots reggae unites the black and white audience in dance, resulting in one of the highlights of the weekend.

However, it's DJs that are the bedrock of the Lake of Stars, which is hardly surprising given that Will Jameson, the festival organiser, was one of the founders of Liverpool's Chibuku Shake Shake club nights, named after the milky, cottage cheese-like local Malawian beer that is an acquired taste to say the least. Everything, from the state-of-the-art Funktion One sound system to the crew's screwdrivers and spanners, has to be flown in. The extra cost of transporting various bands, their instruments and amps, tour managers and other hangers-on to Africa would threaten the future of the event.

After all, this isn't your average festival: all of the Western acts are playing for free and the event is run by volunteers, with financial backing this year from vinspired, the national volunteers service that offers opportunities for young people right across the United Kingdom.

As well as providing a platform for Malawian music to gain access to a wider audience, the festival supports the MicroLoan Foundation, a charity that provides small loans for women at rates lower than banks, so they can set up their own businesses.

It's this philosophy of giving something back that has helped convince a host of household names to make the trip halfway around the world. The Radio 1 DJs Nihal and Tayo, the club legend Ross Allen and the breakbeat maestro Ali B volunteered their services to experience something far removed from their day jobs and soak up the sort of friendly, upbeat vibe that deserted many of the UK's identikit summer festivals years ago.

Their sets go down well with tourists and locals alike, and they seem delighted to have the opportunity to be here. There are no superstar DJ egos on show, and it's refreshing to witness it first-hand.

A special mention must go to Hot Chip's Joe Goddard, who arrived on site mid-afternoon, went to sleep for a few hours, got up, played a banging techno set then flew back to London a few hours later to put the finishing touches to his band's latest album. A 26-hour journey each way for a few hours behind the decks shows the sort of dedication that the festival inspires.

The Maccabees headlined on Friday. The indie five-piece were the only Western band to make the trip and seemed genuinely touched, almost embarrassed by their reception. "It's time to put on your different dancing shoes," proffered the singer, Orlando Weeks, recognising the gulf in musical styles to the African acts that had preceded them. As the opening chords of "No Kind Words" kicked off their set, he added: "There are more people here than if we take a ferry across the channel to Belgium." They grew in stature as the set progressed, winning over the crowd with charm. At one point, they invited anyone who would like to dance on to the stage and were delighted when a group of local women obliged with some frenetic moves. And, in keeping with the vibe of the festival, they lent their bass guitar and cymbals to other bands.

However, the pinnacle of the four days for me had to be the two performances by the Very Best, a ground-breaking collaboration between the DJs/producers Johan Karlberg and Etienne Tron of Radioclit, and the Malawi-born singer Esau Mwamwaya, who sings soulful Chichewa vocals over their chopped and remixed tracks. The bouncing, driving beats of "Wena", "Tengazako" – with its sample of MIA's "Paper Planes" – and the steel-drum sounds of "Kamphopo" neatly encapsulate all that the festival represents.

Malawi is known as the "warm heart of Africa", and the life-affirming Lake of Stars offers a fascinating opportunity to experience the musical pulse of this inspiring country.

The writer flew with Kenya Airways (020-8283 1818; The airline operates daily flights from London to Nairobi connecting to Lilongwe in Malawi

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