The sun beats the beach a fiery 33 degrees and we have been travelling 36 hours on 2 planes and a bus to get here. My two girl friends and I spill out on to the hot sand outside Sunbird Nkopola lodge and thus begins our Lake of Stars weekend. Outside the grounds locals have set up temporary shop made out of reeds and straw and are selling trinkets, souvenirs, fried chicken and beer. Barefoot kids have come to watch the festival crowds as they enter. We get our wristbands, go through the security checks and we are in.
The festival, now in its eleventh iteration, this year hosted over 80 international, local and regional acts;including heavy hitting headliners Uhuru, Young Fathers, Toya Delazy, and Ric Hassani. Over 3 stages across the sprawling site, more than 4000 guests from Europe and Southern Africa came to watch them perform. Lake of Stars alumni include such luminaries as Oliver Mtukudzi, The Very Best, Freshly Ground, Mafikizolo, Felix B of Basement Jaxx and Sauti Sol.
To be Malawian at Lake of Stars is assumed. The women turn up in numbers, wearing immaculately tailored kitenge-print dresses, or sheer beach covers over neon bikinis. The men wear cargo shorts and football jerseys. To be Zambian, Zimbabwean, Mozambican or South African is also fairly unremarkable. One dude rocks full Zulu dress, looking majestic in leopard-skin. To be a Dutch backpacker travelling the continent, or an American volunteer is not unique; throw a stick and you’ll hit three Peace Corps members and an NGO worker. Instead, in what is a novel circumstance for me, being Ugandan is interesting. It is surprising enough that it stops drunk men who are trying to holla at us dead in the tracks of their lame pickup lines. The Rasta selling jewellery outside the site yells out at us the only Ugandan references he knows: ‘Idi Amin!’ he shouts. When we remind him that Amin has been dead for very many years he tells us to meet him at the gates of Makerere University. At least it is not Martin “eat da poo poo” Ssempa. We discover that Malawians love Ann Kansiime. It is so much better to be known for a funny and fresh female comedienne than a bigoted pastor.
My girls and I make #WhenBlackGirlsGoCamping jokes about our natural ant deterrents and the number of scarves and wrappas we each brought. We are a minority, but not an unwelcome one. Increasingly, young Africans like my friends and I are looking into budget travel options and trying to mitigate the unreasonable cost of cross-continental flights. At the campgrounds we neighbour creative professionals from South Africa on their way to holiday in Monkey Bay, a young woman from the Comoros, and Zambian artists who jumped on the 20-hour bus journey from Lusaka.
Lake of Stars manages its divided and diverse audience surprisingly well. Corporate sponsors come outin full force for the event, which has generated close to $5 million for the tiny nation since its inception. Malawian acts dominate the line up, with Gwamba and Lucius Banda sending ripples of excitement through the local crowd when their names are announced. Malawian performers juggle genres like shape-shifters, switching from pop, to rhumba, even to screamo-rock in a single set. As Sally Nyundo said as he went from singing ‘Chant Nyabinghi” to praising the Lord; “it doesn’t matter if you call him Jah or Allah, it is all the same God”. Every local act has a gospel track and performed it during their set. To us Ugandans, coming from a culture that is schizophrenic in its attitude to pleasure, it seemed strange that the audience welcomed praise and worship music with the same fervour they applauded Sonye and his booty-shaking Tsika dance. On the other stages there was plenty to entertain international visitors. DJ Fosta who has been in the industry since the beginnings of Kwaito music in South Africa drops a set that has everyone moving.
Uhuru leaves us all sweating during a non-stop performance that included all their most popular hits: Orlando, Y-tjukutja, Ungowami and, of course, continental earworm Khona. Zeus brought Botswana Hip-hop swag to the stage. Shock-trap-pop brothers bFake bared their bums to an audience who had never heard of them or their satirical songs before, this did not prevent the crowd from loving it. Electropop darling Toya Delazy sang her hits to a front row of young women who knew every word.
Young Fathers, despite winning UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize are not a mainstream act, and I wondered how their music was going to translate to a more conventional audience in Malawi. But good music is music that is good; the Lake of Stars audience is open and everyone loves a bass line that threatens to vibrate your ears off your head. The young men of Young Fathers intrigued and entertained, with the two black members Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole looking like any of the Africans in the audience, until Massaquoi opened his mouth to speak in thick Scottish brogue. Their performance was electric with the lights, staging and music conspiring to create a theatrical atmosphere to go along with the Young Fathers’ dark beats and plaintive harmonies. Those previously unfamiliar with the band left their set awed.
There was plenty of difference to remark upon as an East African in Malawi; no vigorous security checks against Al Shabaab, girls in skimpy clothing going about unharassed. In the end though, it’s the similarities that make festivals so much fun; a crowd who loves lives music and good times.
All photography by Darlyne Komukama