Ever been to Grand Central Station at eight thirty in the morning when everyone’s rushing to work and no one’s had their morning coffee? How about 9AM on market day when everyone’s trying to sell you everything from mangoes to car batteries? Lake of Stars is what happens when Grand Central and a Malawian Market day have one very twisted love child.
It all begins innocently enough. The turn off to Chinteche Inn has a large standing sign that reads ‘Lake of Stars’ with a list of sponsors and acts. You can’t miss it even if you wanted to. There’s a white tent a few feet away from it, one of those military grade yet campy types you see in Hollywood family movies. This one is for rent. The line of parked cars spills out from the overcrowded parking lots, people spewing from their interior as they migrate towards the venue gates.
The Music has been playing long before I got there. Outside the main gate there are dozens of stalls selling wooden carvings, chitenge (aka Ankara) clothes and beanies with fake Rastafarian dreads hanging from them. I wrestle with vendors, festival goers and cars alike in my quest to make it into the venue.
It’s 6PM and the whole world has come to Chinteche. I find Lusubilo band on the main stage. They’re a dynamic group from Karonga who mix traditional songs with upbeat tunes.
No song served gets left at the table, of all the acts tonight; they get the most requests for more songs. Both stages are a mixture of local and international acts. I caught up with a few of them and asked them about their festival experience.
Yesaya is perhaps the youngest of the local acts at Lake of Stars. Known mostly for his collaborations and light hearted hits, Yesaya shot to the top of the charts with his latest song ‘Wanga Baby’. Yesaya is a singer/songwriter and producer and was more than giddy about his first Lake of Stars performance.
‘’The clientele is different. People here are more interested in coming and really listening to whatever you have to offer.’’
With his debut album on the way, song writing is at the top of the list for him. Yesaya writes by feeling and says he can’t write when he’s unhappy, which makes sense considering his album ‘Chipa Dzuwa’ is all about beauty in its many forms.
In addition to his many credits Yesaya is also a skilled drummer and spends some of his free time drumming for other musicians at festivals across the country. When asked about his willingness to drum for other musicians in an industry fraught with competition, the young singer had this to say,
‘’Instead of us fighting against each other and trying to compete for positions here, it’s very small. It’s easier to bind together and take on the world. I’m also a producer; I understand stepping back and putting other people first.’’
I met Theo Thomson straight after his performance backstage. The crowd was still screaming for him. Theo has perfected the art of showmanship. A DJ hypes up the crowd for ten minutes before he even sets a foot on stage. His set is a whirlwind of choreographed dances, gyrating hips, and Hip Hop breakdancing that would put any 90’s RnB artist to shame. Offstage all he wants is some food and so I follow him and his manager to the burger stand.
Theo is an anomaly, the first breakout Pop Star the country has ever seen at a time when the industry is becoming stagnant. After his debut album ‘Gypsy’ was released in 2010 to massive acclaim, Theo stepped out of the limelight for years before returning with his 2015 album ‘White Elephant’. He did what no other artist could do, filling up Robbins Park with a waiting list extending to the road.
“I’m inspired by a lot of artists but mainly Michael Jackson. When I was growing up all I wanted to do was sing and dance like him and so he influences a lot of music in that way. I’m also Malawian, however, and I’m always trying to find ways to weave the language and culture into it. My music is for everyone.”
With Matalala Records, a studio he founded in 2011, Theo’s main mission is to make great music and help other talented artists do the same.
Zolani Mahola didn’t have much time to talk her band Freshlyground blew onto the stage in an instant, working the crowd into frenzy with songs like ‘Waka Waka’ (This one’s for Africa) and ‘Pot Belly’. It’s their second time in the country and Freshlyground stunned the crowd when they brought two young Malawian musicians onstage to perform with them. No one had ever heard of the duo before but Zolani revealed that they had been discovered earlier that year through a music program the group created.
The group itself is a diverse mix of musicians from different African countries who are often on the lookout for talent. I asked Zolani what she would say to young people in a country that doesn’t always value creative pursuits,
“The world doesn’t need you to be Will Smith or Beyonce. The world doesn’t need you to be a lawyer or a doctor although it may sometimes feel that way. The world needs you to be you. That’s the only way you contribute something significant.”
What made this year’s Lake of Stars stand out wasn’t the beach, the people, or the incredible food. It was the multitude of local acts that stood on at par with those from abroad and how they in many cases, surpassed them.