City Of Stars

Sanctuary Lodge, Lilongwe, Malawi, 27 - 28 September 2013

At a time when Britain and America’s major festivals are becoming ever more homogenised, corporatised and sanitised, it’s good to know that there’s still somewhere on earth where a festival can be truly unique. It’s a long way from the English countryside – but if you have the opportunity to join the party at Malawi’s Lake of Stars you’d be a fool not to snatch it with both hands.

2013 saw the festival celebrating its 10th anniversary in Malawi but taking a year off from its traditional Lake home, switching instead to Lilongwe’s Sanctuary Lodge. Nevertheless, the rechristened City of Stars festival still boasted an eclectic programme of music, comedy, poetry, theatre and film.

One of Friday night’s highlights was the phenomenal YADi. The British-born singer, whose North African-influenced sound draws on an Algerian, Italian and Norwegian heritage, was joined onstage by the members of The Very Best for a big-lunged performance that would have wowed both Florence and the Machine.

South African rapper Tumi can drop rhymes like Biggie and his set, which drew heavily from recent album ‘Rob the Church’ proved that Africa has a rapper capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone America cares to send to face him. He even dropped in a sly and unexpected tribute to a British journalist and raconteur, rapping: “Rest in peace, Chris Hitchens”

Auntie Flo‘s closing set on Friday night got the whole party shaking. When they brought dancers on stage, it wasn’t long before someone pointed out that if Miley Cyrus really wants to know what twerking is, she should head to Malawi.

Under the blazing midday sun, the festival site is transformed on Saturday from the warm, tree-lined enclave of the previous night to a bleached, sweltering heat-trap. It’s no problem for the Malawi Mouse Boys, however, who are used to spending long days roasting mouse kebabs over open flames. Their township gospel music transformed them into a band, however, and their soulful harmonies are the perfect opener for the day.

Up-and-coming Scots Bwani Junction blend the pop nous of Two Door Cinema Club and Bombaby Bicycle Club with an afrobeat flavour that couldn’t be more suited to the environment they find themselves in. They play one of those sets that starts with a relaxed crowd quite content to chill out and ends with the whole audience on their feet dancing.

Of all the many Malawian musicians and poets performing, Q Malewezi is arguably the most eloquent and easily the most argumentative. The performance poet takes no prisoners in a stirring set that takes aim squarely at ineffectual aid workers – he explains at one point that the true meaning of ‘NGO’ is ‘Nothing Going On’. He provides proceedings with a resounding voice of dissent against the status quo.

Similarly, Kenyan afropop band Sauti Sol rebel against any ideas to stereotype the way that they look or sound. They blend traditional Kenyan influences with contemporary pop, and do it dressed to the nines in leather jackets that wouldn’t look out of place on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

On a weekend of exceptional and unforgettable performances, The Very Best (pictured) had their work cut out to live up to their name. Joined by longterm collaborator Seye joining them on guitar and vocals, Johan and Esau were on top of their game in their singer’s home country. They play a truly international, life-affirming music that couldn’t be more fitting for one of the most international and life-affirming festivals on Earth.

Next year the party heads back to Lake Malawi. Move heaven and earth to be there.