NME joined Foals for the sixth Lake Of Stars festival in Malawi. This article originally appeared in the 15th October issue of the magazine
It’s about 6am in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport when the itching kicks in. We’re bleary eyed and jet-lagged and crowded into an endless corridor of flight gates, tat shops and international hubbub, and Yannis is flexing his forearms to show us a series of coaster-sized red patches. He’s been hit by the Malarone, a powerful anti-malarial drug whose possible side-effects – ranging from rashes, vomiting and diarrhoea through to paranoia, depression, panic attacks and hair loss – take on a compelling, psychosomatic quality when you’re sleep deprived and have read too much of the info leaflet.
We’re heading south, to the warm heart of Africa, to Malawi and the sixth Lake Of Stars Festival, and we’re a long way off even halfway there.
Another flight to Lilongwe on the “pride of Africa”, Kenya Airways, and it’s time to board a beat-up bus for a five-hour transfer to the southern shores of Lake Malawi. As we career down the roads, surrounded on both sides by bright fire-red earth, huts, houses, stalls, graveyards, coffin shops, tyre merchants and the general bustle of African life, it becomes clear that no-one on board has seen anything like this before. Daily life revolves around the roads; people chill in the shade while children run up to the windows to give us the thumbs up. Groups of traders offer newspapers, vegetables and Chupa Chups. It’s an eye-opener, not least for Yannis.
“It was overwhelming, and elicited a wide array of different emotions,” he admits later on. “Some of the things you see on the roadside it’s hard to look at first-hand, because you’ve inherited these images of women walking around and it’s emotionally deceptive in the setting it’s presented on TV. It’s a different culture, and just because it’s not rich in material products doesn’t mean it’s not rich in other ways.”
Later, we stop in a small desert town to pay a local man 50 kwacha to use his toilet (there’s no water in the cistern) and grab some Special Brew (still made by Carlsberg, but not trampagne out here) at an empty brick building with a TV hanging off the wall called the Boyz Pub. After some initial staring from both sides, the ice melts quietly and Foals make some new friends.
When we do reach the Sunbird resort at Nkopola, it quickly becomes clear the journey’s been worth it several times over. A series of bars, BBQ stands and stages scattered across the sand by the shores of a heart-stoppingly beautiful lake, it’s perhaps the most interesting festival we’ve ever been to. It’s certainly the most surprising. Malawian bands make up the majority, and encompass everything from local reggae legends Black Missionaries to big ballad man Lucius Banda, via the highly politicised soul funk group Body Mind & Soul and Big Brother Africa celebrity Maskal, who fills his set with guest rappers, video game synths and a run-through of Lionel Richie’s ‘Stuck On You’.
But there’s music from across the globe, too. South African post rockers Bateleur made a five-day drive up from Cape Town (sleeping in dried out swimming pools on the way) to air their riff tapestries live, while acts from Japan, China, Namibia, Kenya and the US share the bill with some truly oddball stuff, like the Amitofo Kung Fu collective, a crew of Malawian orphans trained by a Taiwanese monk.
Saturday morning it’s all fluorescent board shorts and beers in the swimming pool. For everyone except Yannis, that is, who appears briefly from his room fully dressed with his laptop to elicit some friendly ribbing. “You breaking for lunch?” Jimmy asks from his pool perch by the swim-up bar before a gargantuan flying thing tears through the sky and sends the band diving underwater for cover. Jack’s semi-dazed from a night under a mosquito net and a 9am soundcheck.
Later the band are taken to an HIV testing stand, a Book Bus, and to meet some local ladies, beneficiaries of the MicroLoan project, an organisation that aims to help women gain education and start their own businesses.
They greet our bus singing, and for Yannis it’s the best music he’s heard all weekend. “I love a capella singing,” he admits. “It reminded me strangely of Alan Lomax’s recordings of prison singing in the Southern US states – the idea that it’s just your voice and a heartbeat rhythm. It’s something that comes from Africa, that you can boil music down to its purest state, which is voice and a pulse.”
Foals’ headline set is everything we’d expect from the highly tuned machine they’ve become while touring the second album, Yannis in gregarious form (“Grazie, it’s an honour to be here”) and Jack stepping up to – and often surpassing – some of the immense drum skills we’ve seen on display all weekend.
There’s a few monitor issues and a couple of concerned techs doing laps of the stage, but the inevitable onslaught of their tight-knit torpedoes continues apace, from ‘Cassius’ to ‘Balloons’, and the likes of ‘Miami’ are broken down into improvised sections, pretty much a first for the band according to Yannis. He faces calls from the front row to take his top off but doesn’t feel obliged, instead unleashing ‘Two Steps Twice’ before they vanish into the balmy night.
There are no new songs. While ideas for the third album are gradually taking shape (Yannis fancies trying “a stripped-back style that focuses on drums and vocals” while Edwin “wants to get in some big fat bass”) this is very much a farewell to the first two.
After the set, and after a fair few Special Brews, at 4am, it’s time for an early morning safari, during which Foals find elephants, warthogs and crocodiles enjoying the early morning sun at Liwonde National Park. Hey, it beats the late-night wildlife at your local festival, right?
Words and Pictures: Tim Chester
Lake Of Stars takes place every September at the south end of Lake Malawi. For more info head to the website.
Microloan is a UK charity providing small loans, business training and mentoring to women in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Book Bus – Improving childrens’ lives one book at a time.