Festival fever: five of the best art and music festivals in Malawi

The legendary Lake of Stars Festival on the shores of Lake Malawi isn’t the only event to watch out for in the Warm Heart of Africa

By Amelia Duggan
Published 24 May 2019, 14:38 BST, Updated 22 Jul 2021, 13:25 BST

When Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone reached Africa’s third largest lake in 1859, he was greeted by a pre-dawn spectacle of fishermen canoeing by lamplight. It inspired him to coin its nickname, the Lake of Stars. Years later, in 2004, Livingstone’s epithet and Lake Malawi’s dazzling beaches were employed by a British promoter to launch a music festival that quickly developed mythical status worldwide. The success of Lake of Stars sparked festival fever in Malawi and before the end of the decade the diminutive nation had packed the reliably clement period between late September and early November with events, creating new spaces to showcase the country’s dynamism and rising stars to the rest of the world. These five festivals stand out for their curated lineups, striking environments, cheap tickets and friendly crowds — and offer a vibrant compliment to a trip spent touring colonial tea estates in the highlands, spotting big cats in newly rewilded national parks or idling away days by the lake.

Lake of Stars Festival
Dancing barefoot on white-sand beaches to international DJs and bands; watching blazing sunsets alongside young Malawians and international aid workers from across the continent; camping under palm trees and bathing in the freshwater lake — these are the experiences upon which the now-legendary Lake of Stars Festival is built. In 2018, the 15th edition of the event welcomed 5,000 attendees for a three-day programme headlined by American electronic trio Major Lazer and Kenyan boyband Sauti Sol, and generated an estimated $1.6m (£1.25m) for Malawi’s stricken economy. This year, the festival is decamping to a remote Moroccan-style fortress, Kachere Kastle, set in a northerly curve of the shoreline, for a smaller, ‘boutique’ installment, scheduled for 27-29 September. It promises a raft of wellness experiences, fashion, poetry and dance to complement the yet-to-be-announced lineup. 

Likoma Summer Cultural Festival
A relatively new fixture for the laidback, tropical isle of Likoma is its Summer Cultural Festival, which celebrates the island’s heritage with a programme of parades, barbecues, beach sports, boat rides, craft and art stalls, concerts and traditional dance performances, this year slated for 2-6 October. One of the highlights of the festival is the journey to get there: Likoma is reached from mainland Malawi by plane, which affords spectacular views across Lake Malawi, empty beaches and baobab forests, or the MV Ilala ferry. With many performing musicians from around Malawi choosing the latter route, the boat has been known to hosts warm-up gigs on the top deck. Accommodation options include the ultra-luxurious Kaya Maya resort and Mango Drift backpackers.

Tumaini Festival
A refugee camp may seem like an unlikely setting for a music and cultural festival, but for its founder, the Congolese slam poet Trésor Nzengu Mpauni — and for many of the other 32,000 residents of Dzaleka Camp, 28 miles outside Lilongwe — Tumaini has proved a lifeline. The annual two-day, free festival is not only a creative outlet and source of entertainment for residents but works to improve the standing of refugees displaced to Malawi. The fifth installment, in 2018, was organised by 260 volunteers, and saw up-and-coming Malawian artists perform alongside refugees across five events spaces, with around 7,000 patrons enjoying pan-African cuisine, music, art, dance and poetry. It’s a joyful and educational event for first-time attendees, with additional insights into camp life offered through a new homestay programme. The festival is scheduled for 1-2 November 2019.

Blantyre Arts Festival
Now entering into its 10th year, the Blantyre Arts Festival will stage an eclectic mix of homegrown Malawian art, including music, fashion, painting and photography, at venues in the country’s second largest city in October 2019. The organisation behind the festival runs workshops with rural artists and school children, animated by the belief that with the right acumen and tools the arts can provide a pathway out of poverty. Blantyre is the gateway to southern Malawi’s stunning wildlife parks, Majete Reserve and Liwonde National Park, and has important British colonial architecture including Mandala House, dating from 1882, which houses the popular La Caverna restaurant and art gallery. Dates to be announced.

Sand Music Festival
Founded a decade ago by Malawian reggae singer Lucius ‘Soldier’ Banda, Sand Music Festival styles itself as a barefoot beach party to rival Lake of Stars, with African musicians getting crowds dancing with upbeat hip hop and reggae-infused numbers. The three-day show takes place on the sands of Sunbird Livingstonia Beach in Salima, within striking distance of both Lilongwe and the backpacker paradises Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear, and next door to the rustic resort of Senga Bay. It will take place from 1-3 November 2019, and past acts have included Malawian reggae star Black Missionaries, Tanzanian chart topper Diamond Platnumz and Congolese singer Awilo Longomba.

More information: malawitourism.com

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