The Lake Of Stars music festival has been held in Malawi since 2004, normally on the shores of Lake Malawi.

In 2011, it generated the equivalent of more than £998,000 for the Malawian economy, with a record attendance of 4000 people, a mix of reasonably well-off locals, visitors from other parts of South and East Africa, American and European tourists and a significant number of ex-pat Brits and NGO workers.

The festival took a year off in 2012 to develop a creative training course with Edinburgh's Napier University and the Malawian Music Crossroads project.

This year, the festival was (temporarily) moved to a city location - Sanctuary Lodge, Lilongwe - and rebranded City Of Stars. Fringe events took place around the city, including a one-day conference which brought together event organisers, brands, musicians and tourism leaders to share experiences and to try to encourage the development and support of culture in Malawi, especially music, as a means of driving tourism.

Through the Scotland-Malawi Partnership and with the support of Creative Scotland, City Of Stars sourced funding to take a handful of Scots-based people working in the arts to share their knowledge and experiences with their counterparts in Malawi and to witness first-hand what it and neighbouring countries have to offer music programmers.

One of those was Geoff Ellis (pictured), chef executive of T in the Park promoter DF Concerts & Events. He didn't take much persuading: ''A music festival in Malawi for September Weekend, a little further than Millport but still achievable across four days? I'm in!''

This is his story.


The minibus was old, and battered and its windscreen was smashed on the driver's side. We were inside with children from the Tilinanu orphanage in one of the townships which sprawl out from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi and one of its largest cities.

One of the supporters of the orphanage is Strummerville, a music charity that is a legacy of the late frontman of The Clash, Joe Strummer, and one that T in the Park has supported for several years. It has built the children an outdoor classroom, stage and sun shelter.

As the bus passed tiny one-room shops, with random groups of men of various ages sitting outside, rows of bicycles and street sellers with their corn on the cob barbecues, most of the onlookers waved and cheered.

Their reaction made it obvious how successful the staff and volunteers have been in integrating the orphanage into the community.

The excitement and sense of anticipation on the bus was greater than if we'd been travelling to a cup final, and the songs soon started in full voice.

The orphanage choir was to give a performance at the City Of Stars festival. Earlier I had watched as they rehearsed for my benefit, an unforgettable few minutes. As we arrived outside the festival gate I told the children I felt more privileged being there than being on Beyonce's tour bus.

I had already discussed how they might have a presence at T in the Park and the ways in which we, and the many artists we work with, might be able to support the orphanage.

At the City Of Stars, the choir performed soon after 1pm on Saturday to a modest but appreciative crowd. The band who were to follow them stopped line-checking and stood in quiet appreciation.

It took three flights in and out of five countries - including a surprise stop-off in Zambia where I mistakenly thought I had reached my destination and almost disembarked - to reach Malawi.

The Scottish contingent included Donald Shaw, the Capercaillie songwriter who, as artistic director, has transformed Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival; Bafta- nominated Scottish film-maker Johnny Barrington; and the bands Bwani Junction and Auntie Flo.

This being Malawi, there were other visitors from Scotland to catch up with when we arrived. Jacqui Austin from National Museums Scotland has been working on a joint project with her opposite number in Blantyre, Malawi, to help boost visits to the country's five museums and to reflect the links between the two countries and their cultures and histories.

And the venue for Bwani Junction's first show, the Chameleon Club, is run by a very affable Glaswegian. The band went down well and their infectious afro-beat- influenced sound won them some new fans.


Perhaps surprisingly for an event that started at 11am and did not finish until 4am, one challenge that City Of Stars didn't have was maintaining the conviviality of the audience. Those remaining after the kids and families departed as evening approached imbibed a constant stream of alcohol. But there was no trouble, no arguments, no bad behaviour.

This could have been because of the fact security people all carried large batons, the police officers had pistols and the small number of army personnel on duty had their AK 47s. The 1.5km perimeter was patrolled by guards with huge rottweiler dogs - although warning signs proclaiming "No Swim Crocodiles" suggested the risk of a breached entry was low.

I noticed three other men with rifles and safari suits - there to protect the audience from over-adventurous hyenas (and, who knows, perhaps crocodiles and escaped rottweilers, too).

All these may have been deterrents, but I'm convinced that it was the friendliness and incredible warmth of the Malawian people though that contributed to the laid-back good nature of the festival.


I had been asked to speak at a conference on the growth of T in the Park and how developing a music festival can provide a huge boost to the economy (in 2011, the impact of T in the Park to Scotland was calculated at more than £40 million, including media value but excluding social media).

As T in the Park's relationship with Tennent's Lager is the longest-running music sponsorship deal in the UK, I was asked to demonstrate the impact that brands can have on music festivals and the value that a brand gains in return - which is usually in the form of a much higher level of emotional connection with its consumer base than that gained from traditional above-the-line marketing.

Sharing the panel with me was the wonderfully enigmatic Muthoni Ndonga (a Kenyan musician and record label boss who also finds time to run the evocatively titled monthly festival, Blankets & Wine, primarily in Kenya but also in Uganda); and Rebecca Corey, the director of the annual Sauti Za Busara Festival in Zanzibar.

When Rebecca spoke about her 2010 event being the only blip in the growth of her festival due to a power outage, it reminded me why we use twin-set generators at T in the Park … although in Zanzibar that power outage was across the entire island and lasted for four months.

Perhaps with some more commercial sponsorship, Lake Of Stars could lower the admission price (currently the equivalent of about £20) and open up to more of the Malawian population, which would help to establish an audience balance more akin to that of most other festivals.

I spoke to one senior representative of a local mobile network at the festival and told him of the benefits that a mobile company, in ­particular, can gain from being involved in a music festival.


Perhaps my favourite act of the festival, after Bwani Junction, was the Malawi Mouse Boys, who have been together since they were children scratching a living from selling rodent kebabs at the roadside. If Seasick Steve came from Malawi he would sound like this.

Friday night highlights for me were former Glasgow-based, experimental electronic artist, Auntie Flo; acclaimed English wordsmith George The Poet (featured on Emeli Sande and Labrinth's Beneath Your Beautiful); and British-born Yadi, who was stunning both in appearance and performance.

Yadi was also feverishly received again on the Saturday when she joined the aptly named The Very Best, an electronic Afro-pop duo who would qualify for Malawi, Sweden and England were they footballers and last year released an album entitled MTMTMK - More to Malawi than Madonna's Kids.

Bwani Junction played a short set on Saturday afternoon that was solid and got an audience who had probably never heard of them dancing and cheering.

Early on Saturday, The Amahoro Drummers from Burundi performed in the middle of the field with a rhythmic set entwined with tribal dancing.

Sauti Sol from Kenya, perhaps one of the best-known artists at the festival, were probably the most popular act and seemed to have shaken off their hangovers from the Friday evening when the singer was walking into trees.

Menes, a poet from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who now resides in Malawi, really stood out with his acerbic lyrics and perfectly timed delivery. His treatment of the most familiar acronym in Malawi - NGO's Nothing Going On - resonated well with the locals, as did his references to the Chinese rather than the British now being the most influential power in Malawi's future.


On Sunday morning, after a "full English", we piled into two rickety minibuses. I don't think any of us were ready to leave the place they justifiably call the warm heart of Africa. We headed straight to the airport in Nairobi, Kenya, for a six-hour stopover for Johnny Barrington, Donald Shaw and myself. Unfortunately the airport recently had a major fire, taking out most of the facilities, including all the lounges. Some of the departure gates are in tents so we were grateful we had a hard seat at a small table so I could write this piece and Donald could finalise the schedule for Celtic Connections. Johnny, whose visual offering at the festival had apparently been engaging and horrific in equal measure, began editing his latest film after viewing the hundreds of photos he took during the festival.