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Lake of Stars festival: banging the drum for Africa’s musical heritage

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For over a decade, Lake of Stars has drawn musicians and visitors from around the world to Malawi’s shores – but this year they were joined by special groups of performers, drawn from the country’s Dzaleka refugee camp.

By Kevin EG Perry / The Guardian

For most pilgrims it is a long way to Lake of Stars festival. This year the event returned to its original site at Chintheche Inn in northern Malawi, seven hours by bus from the capital Lilongwe. Many artists come from further afield still, across Africa and Europe. Alongside them this year were groups of refugees making their own journey from Malawi’s Dzaleka camp.

These included the Amahoro Drummers, a traditional Burundian group who perform with the tall karyenda drums balanced precariously on their heads. And yet most of the two dozen drummers have lived in exile their whole lives, member Simon Nzigamasabo tells me. “Maybe 95% of us – including myself – have never seen Burundi,” he says. “I was born in Tanzania in 1985 and learned how to play this drum there. Our leaders in the camps always wanted the children to see a positive side of their country.”

It’s a lesson Nzigamasabo is now teaching his own children. “It’s very important, not only for us but for the world,” he says. “In Burundi, the drum has a lot of meaning. The word ‘drum’ in Kirundi is ingoma, which also means ‘government’.”

Traditionally, the Burundian ritual dance of the royal drum was performed at important feasts and festivals to invoke the power of their monarchy. Such is its cultural significance that in 2014 it was added to Unesco’s list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, and the Amahoro perform the drumming and accompanying dancing in traditional dress – aside from the occasional fluorescent flash of modern football shorts. Their music is accompanied by heroic poetry interspersed, at least during this performance on the golden sands of Lake Malawi, with a repeated question to their audience: “Are you happy?”

It’s a question they may ask themselves. Their current home at Dzaleka was opened in 1994 to provide sanctuary for those fleeing wars in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is now home to around 25,000 people.

“Life in refugee camps is very, very hard,” says Nzigamasabo. “I say that from experience – I was born in one and now I’m 30! I believe it takes courage to be a refugee. Thanks to that courage, we’re not here at this festival as refugees but as Amahoro.”

The drummers’ performance was one of the highlights of a weekend that sought to bring together musicians from Europe and Africa and included performances from South African Afro-fusion band Freshlyground, Zambian rapper Roberto, and German progressive house DJ Timo Maas, enjoying a change of scenery from Ibiza.

Norwegian jazz-pop band Mooyh travelled from Oslo to play at Lake of Stars. Guitarist Bernt Isak Wærstad says that the location of the festival site on Lake Malawi more than made up for its remoteness. “The scenery is really beautiful,” he said. “Our bus may have broken down, but if you’re coming to a festival like this you have to take it as a bit of a trip and just enjoy the ride.”

But in stark contrast to their country-hopping fellow performers, the Amahoro Drummers rushed back to Dzaleka after their performance in order to sign back in, knowing a missed deadline could mean sanctions or deportation. As refugees they are prohibited from holding jobs or living outside of the camp or travelling outside of the country. Nzigamasabo himself says he supports himself with only a “very, very small” tomato patch, so the shows they can find around Malawi – and the tip bowl they pass around during performances – are crucial. “We have a big challenge,” he explains. “We cannot get permission to perform outside Malawi, despite being offered many opportunities to promote ourselves. I believe we are stars, but being stars cannot take us out of Dzaleka.”

The Amahoro Drummers have become widely known throughout the country in part due to the work of Menes La Plume, a Congolese rapper and refugee who has lived in Dzaleka since 2008. For the last four years he has been working to promote the cultural talents of those living in the camp, arranging events as a way of giving his fellow refugees a platform for their art: since 2014 he has run the Tumaini festival inside the camp itself. This year’s takes place on 5 November, a sister festival to Lake of Stars itself.

La Plume believes working with the country’s largest festival has helped raise both the profile of artists from the camp and the subject of refugee rights. “Lake of Stars is a platform to talk to people about refugees in Malawi,” he says, referencing the success of acts who have formed in Dzaleka, including the Amahoro Drummers, modern dance group Salama Africa and the band Etoile de la Paix, who mix rumba, hip-hop and zouk.

Organisers estimate that about 60% of this year’s 2,500 Lake of Stars attendees were Malawian, with others coming from surrounding countries and many travelling from Europe or drawn from the region’s large contingent of NGO workers.

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