Lake of Stars Festival - 9-11 September 2005

My friend Sam sent me this review from Malawi:


From the grimy backstreets of Liverpool to the crystalline shores of Lake Malawi, Chibuku Shake Shake’s star continues to grow.  Hailed as the saviour to the city’s club scene following former superclub Cream’s closure five years ago, its reach now extends to sunnier climes.

A profusion of UK and African musical talent travelled to the Lake of Stars Festival at Chintheche beach this September, entertaining all-comers at the biggest event this little-known country had seen since its independence from the UK in 1964.

Years of planning went into what could prove to be a catalyst in a series of initiatives - including a football/farming scheme proposed by former Liverpool goalkeeper David James - aimed at helping this impoverished nation where 14% of adults live with HIV.

And this year Will Jameson, the brain behind the club – named after a popular Malawian beverage - and festival, staged it once more.  All proceeds were donated to the Children in the Wilderness charity, which supports just some of the country’s 500, 000 AIDS orphans.

Attracting big-name DJs from the British music scene to perform alongside traditional Malipenga dancers and some of the orphans who sang, recited poems and performed theatre there guaranteed a true cultural exchange for the 20 nationalities gathered by Africa’s third-biggest lake. 

But why should a commercially successful venture stage a music festival at great expense in a place many know little about?  Only Jameson can answer that: “Firstly, my motivation was to get back to Malawi.  After doing some charity work out there a few years ago, I fell in love with the place and the people and wanted a good reason to go back.  I felt that bringing music from the UK and Africa to Malawi, and helping with the charity, would be very rewarding.  This is what keeps me going.  Eventually, I want to live in Malawi, so this is how to fund it!” 

The festival not only helped the children in funding their education ($110 per year): it involved them, as Children in the Wilderness’s programme manager Amanda Joynt explains: “We work on RTC – Respect, Teamwork and Challenging yourself.  From the start of practising for the festival, the children had to decide what they wanted to perform, how to do it and who was doing what.  It seems like a simple thing, and people may ask what good this does the kids, but good leadership, respect and understanding is what will make communities in Malawi flourish, not an extra bag of maize.” 

And while Liverpool’s residents are bombarded constantly with charity pleas, here they can become part of the appeal.  Many people around the world are aware of Live 8, but how do its donors benefit?  The feel good factor is only temporary and there is a distance between the organisers and contributors.  At the Lake of Stars festival the distance is but a few metres and the effects palpable.

The advantages of staging an event like this are clear, but is this ‘eco-tourism’ event viable?  Jameson thinks so:  “It is expensive to stage, but more tickets can be sold for next year’s festival, which is being planned now.  Also, we never pursued sponsorship or other funding, but I believe money can be secured.”

So how does this affect the people of Liverpool – do they care?  “Chibuku is Liverpool!  I’ve been here for the past seven years and most of the people and DJs who travelled out there are from here.  There is a big link now between Liverpool and Malawi and we should build on it.  With the Capital of Culture approaching, we should take advantage of it.”

And the links are now being exploited.  The 17 year-old lead singer of Malawian band Tikhu Vibrations, Tiwonge Hango contributed to an energetic gospel-influenced set on the festival’s final day.  This prodigious talent truly becomes part of the music he plays.  Hango produced the band’s CD, Charu Chiweme, playing all instruments and composing the songs.  He has been playing keyboard since he was eight and creates genuine dialogue with any audience, yet has no musical qualifications.

With education in Malawi expensive, however, and nowhere dedicated to his passion, this raw talent cannot be polished.  This is where musical philanthropist Jameson steps in.  Working with Liverpool Institute of Performing Art’s Dave Pichilinge, he is helping Hango apply to study in the UK.  For one person from such an obscure country to be given the opportunity to study at one of Britain’s finest performing arts institutions bears testament to the teenager’s ability.

Jameson plans to establish sponsorship and training programmes of various disciplines, some on a transfer basis, with colleges in the city.  This, it is hoped, will inject a unique culture into Liverpool’s veins, enriching its rediscovered vitality.

But the festival isn’t just about Africa – there are strong links to Liverpool; with Chibuku residents amongst over 20 acts travelling to Malawi from these shores.  One of those with bonds stronger than most is Gavin Moruda.

With his love for music, Liverpool and culture, Chibuku Shake Shake could be the dream gig for the 21 year-old DJ.  He joined the Millennium Volunteers Scheme in 2001 and since then hasn’t looked back; writing and developing a computing course for Kurdish asylum seekers whilst working on a consultation project for an after-school club in Bootle.  Earlier this year he was crowned North-West Millennium Volunteer of the Year, running weekly DJ workshops.

For those who question his intentions, a glance at Moruda’s festival performances would surely dispel any doubts.  He could be found up until all hours spinning records to the beat of his big heart for the delight of Africans and other dedicated travellers brave enough to visit this embryonic event.

As he explains in characteristically laid-back manner this year’s contribution was remarkable.  “Firstly, I was active in promoting the event itself.  I got there early, started flyering, spreading the word…that sort of thing. I did donate my DJ fee as well.”  Typical of his understated demeanour, he mutters this almost sheepishly.

And if DJing for free and buying his own flight wasn’t enough, he plunged into yet more tales of his generous summer.  “I was involved in the Senga Bay Clean Up Project. The children would collect bits of plastic and receive 5 Kwacha [Malawi’s currency – worth around two pence in England] for every 1kg they picked up off the beach.  It was all for recycling - I think they collected over 1000kgs. The idea is to help people earn money for themselves.”

What the artists combined in Malawi is a memorable experience and a sense of contribution.  With the backdrop of Lake Malawi lit up across a blinding sunset and a vast array of compelling cultures in evidence, this is clearly not any old Ibiza experience.  Moruda describes a confrontation he had with a Zimbabwean woman at the festival that will stay with him forever: “She pointed her finger right at me and said…. “People who live here, they have nothing, but they have more than you people will ever have.” I’ll always remember that.”  

Amongst the better-known acts, egalitarian musicians like Gavin talk of a spiritual connection with Malawi.  “The people here taught me a lot, I like how Malawians seemed to have more inter-community support for each other”  To use the popularly adopted travellers’ phrase, the performers have ‘found themselves’ out here.

Overall the festival was successful, but critics highlight one burning issue: money.  Southampton-based bands Trinity and The Curlies toured Malawi with national treasures Mabingu, culminating in a performance at Chintheche beach that raised $2000 for Children in the Wilderness.

Curlies lead singer Calvin Keelan – born and raised in the country – said, “The price of beer was way too expensive.  I suppose for someone that’s from the UK it’s cheap - £1.50 or whatever it was – but for your average Malawian it’s simply not affordable.”  With most inhabitants living on less than a dollar a day, it is hard to disagree.

And although those who attended the festival were enriched on many levels, will they return?  Africa is a long way from Liverpool and, with the media purporting an image of the continent as largely corrupt and lawless, many are reluctant to part with their cash and make the trip.

This is only the event’s second year, but Jameson is already feverishly organising the 2006 event.  He plans to boost the country’s tourism industry on a long-term basis: “I’m working on a combined travel and tourism package that will bring the ticket price down.  I want to increase awareness and get people out there – once they see what’s happening, they’ll know where I’m coming from.” 

He wants to increase the festival’s reach - throughout Africa especially – and arrange for travellers to participate in some of the projects there.  A ‘one cost’ strategy is also planned to encourage greater numbers to visit this beautiful, untouched country. Superficially, the face of Liverpool as Capital of Culture 2008 is evolving.  But no matter how many new roads are laid or blocks of flats erected, it is essentially the same place, albeit more expensive and cosmetically attractive.  The Lake of Stars festival, through its proposed initiatives and diverse array of cultures, promises to introduce a new culture into the city altogether: the culture of Africa.

© Sam Clack/Adam Holt December 2005

Below are a selection of photographs from the gathering.