Alison Kerry discovers that Malawi's vinspired Lake Of Stars is simply paradise...
Overall - 8/10
Known as 'the warm heart of Africa' because of the incredibly friendly and welcoming locals, combined with a rich musical history, Malawi couldn't be a better place to hold a music festival. There's a bit of planning involved in getting to the vinspired Lake Of Stars but a paradise awaits when you arrive.
There are two stages playing African and European music at opposite ends of the beach within the Sunbird Nkopola resort near Mangochi on the shores of Lake Malawi. The music kicks off late in the afternoon leaving plenty of time during the day for tourist pursuits: a morning safari in Liwonde National Park perhaps; or a trip to the local market in Mangochi; or a drumming workshop at the beach bar; or yoga on the campsite beach.
As the sun goes down, you gear up to dance through the night then watch the sunrise over the lake. Even the food is surprisingly great with everything from beef stew with Nsima (the staple food of Malawi), to chicken and fish curries. The brave can even try the local drink Chibuku – a maize/porridge-like beer that comes in a milk carton and is a cheap and effect intoxicant. The overall experience is amazing is something you'll never forget…particularly next summer when you're knee deep in mud at your favourite UK festival.
Getting There and Back - 7/10
Not the shortest journey to a festival, but well worth the effort. One of this year's festival sponsors, Kenya Airways, offer a special fare of £416 inclusive to the Malawi capital, Lilongwe. The festival organisers arrange a return coach transfer to and from the site on for USD$50 which takes approximately three hours. It's a lot less effort than it sounds and bear in mind that everything else along the way (food/drink/accommodation) is incredibly inexpensive.
The Site - 9/10
The setting on the southern shores of Lake Malawi is idyllic. With temperatures in the low 30s centigrade during the day and high 20s at night, there are no wellies and waterproofs required here. The stages, bars and chill out areas are all along the beach. You'll even spot the odd baboon or monkey in the trees at the far end of the beach. As well as luxury hotel rooms – air-conditioned and almost all with beach views – the resort has its own large, beautiful campsite under shade of large trees with its own sandy beach, restaurant, shower and loo blocks. As festival camping goes, this is about as good as it gets.
Atmosphere - 9/10
This is a one-world-one-music atmosphere. There's a large contingent of UK and European backpackers as well as ex-pats living in Malawi who have all made there way here. The organisers estimate of the 4,000+ attendees, 60% are Africans, not only from Malawi, but also neighbouring countries. This crowd is here to get stuck in no matter how far they've travelled and it shows in the overtly friendly vibe.
The music starts around 3pm each day and remains chilled out until the sun sets around 6pm when the heat subsides (only just!). In the morning, you can get involved in singing or drumming workshops run by the festival organisers, which see many of the artists also getting involved. Afternoon sees acoustic sets and performances from African dance troupes. Evening through to the wee hours of the morning sees amazing local artists and UK/European DJs fuelling a relaxed party atmosphere.
Music - 9/10
Afrobeat, reggae, indie rock, dance music and everything in between. With the mix of Malawian artists and European DJs, there is enough diversity in music over the four days to ensure everyone has a brilliant time. The local artists are proud of the fact such a big music event is in their country and they don't disappoint with amazing performances. The Maccabees come straight from a UK tour where they headlined Brixton Academy to play. The Very Best, the collaboration between European DJs, Radioclit, and Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya, is the perfect combination to sum up the incredible music at this festival.
The Maccabees – 9/10
The young indie boys look so impressed with the local acts playing before their Friday night slot that nerves appear to set in. They look slightly terrified the locals will hate them. These fears are unfounded and the nerves disappear as the crowd swells and The Maccabees play one of the best sets of the weekend. They go down so well, there's even a stage invasion from a group of girls jumping up to be impromptu backing dancers. Singer, Orlando Weeks, gets right into the spirit and dances with them. The enthusiasm of guitarist, Felix White, as he jumps all over the stage catches on with the crowd and the entire beach gets into the spirit. The band looks like they had the time of their lives and are overwhelmed by the praise that greets them from locals and Europeans alike for the rest of the weekend.
The Black Missionaries – 9/10
This Malawian reggae band is an absolute thrill to see on Saturday night. With five albums to date and a huge local following the crowd vibe is electric. Complete with the tropical beach setting, reggae music doesn't get much better than this. For those of us who are too young to have seen Bob Marley and The Wailers, this is possibly as close as you'll get. One love, indeed.
Lucius Banda - 8/10
With 14 albums since the 80s, Lucius Banda is a household name in Malawi. The former Malawian MP is nicknamed 'The Soldier' because of his songs of fighting for the poor of his country. His set of uplifting roots reggae sung mostly in local dialect, Chichewa, sees one of the biggest crowds of the festival. Stunning back-up dancers wow the audience as his songs come to life. This is feel good music and sets the tone for the whole night.
The Very Best – 8/10
The collaboration of European producer/DJ's, Radioclit, and Malawian singer, Esau Mwamwaya, give us an Afrobeat dance music fusion in one electrifying set. Most songs are from their recent album 'Warm Heart Of Africa', an album that's sure to be in the top-tens of this year's tastemakers polls. They don't disappoint live with Mwamwaya's amazing voice, as he sings mostly in Chichewa. Topped with fantastic beats from Johan Karlberg and Etienne Tron, this is a tropical sound that keeps the good vibes flowing along the beach.
Late night DJ sets all weekend – 8/10
To round each evening off during this four day festival, and to ensure maximum use of warm nights on the beach, there were sets from Johan (of Dekker & Johan), Ross Allen, Ali B, Joe Goddard (of Hot Chip) and UK DJ collective, Can't Mix Won't Mix Shouldn't Mix Don't Mix, to name a few. There's no better way to finish a great day of music, ensuring there was never a dull moment. The final night dance party went right through to sunrise with a few punters going straight from the beach to the waiting coach to transfer back to the airport for the trip home.
Trip too short
Not staying longer to explore Lake Malawi and the rest of the country was an over-sight. Having met so many ex-pats and backpackers over the four days of the festival, there were plenty of invitations to join in on the next stage of their journey. Next year, definitely!
As safe as this festival is, on more than one occasion we heard of people who were suddenly surprised to find themselves without their wallet and/or mobile phone but with no idea when these were taken. Could have been a local, but could just as easily been a rogue backpacker looking to top up their travel fund. Despite the incredibly chilled vibe, it proves normal festival precautions apply the world over.
The Microloan Foundation
A portion of the profits from vinspired Lake Of Stars go to the Microloan Foundation, a UK based charity who aim to reduce the depth of poverty in rural locations through microfinance. They provide small loans to rural residents in Malawi and Zambia, two of the most underprivileged African nations. The loans, as opposed to hand outs, help locals to start small businesses. Recipients are also offered guidance and advice on how to run a business to make their venture profitable. This helps to ensure their loans are repaid.
The festival organisers arranged several trips for festival goers to travel to local villages in Mangochi to meet groups of women who have benefited from the Microloan Foundation. The businesses ranged from selling maize – a staple of the Malawian diet, to making and selling Sweet Beer – a local maize and fruit based drink – to fishermen on Lake Malawi. One women took the profits from her first loan, used to sell maize, and bought two push bikes to provide a 'taxi bike' and delivery service between villages. Now on her third loan from the foundation, her business has become so profitable, she's able to employee two local boys as delivery riders.
The Mangochi, Malawi Branch of the Microloan Foundation opened in February 2009. Initial loans were given out to 40 separate groups. Not a single loan has defaulted in that time and the Mangochi Branch is looking to expand to provide loans to a further 40 groups, bringing the total to 80 groups.
It was an inspiring experience to see the empowerment of local people who are committed to changing their own destiny while contributing to the growth of their own community.
Local Football Match
A short walk from the festival site is a local football pitch where there are four local village teams competing for the 'Pamodzi Cup'. A number of festival goers went along to join the large crowd from surrounding villages to witness the competition. There were two games of 45 minutes, and then the winners of each played for the cup. Despite the searing heat, dusty, rocky pitch and only half the players actually wearing shoes, this was some serious football. The skill was phenomenal and judging by the size of the crowd there are also some serious football fans in Malawi. It was a pleasure to join then in appreciation of the sport.
Quote of the festival
Overhearing a conversation at the beach bar between two Brits, which ended with: "Well…we've come all this way. We might as well smack the ass out of it." It was this 'we're here to have fun and possibly learn something along the way' attitude of soaking up all Malawi had to offer shared by most attendees that made this event so special.
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