My Malawi Festival Experience

Looking at things through my European (sun)glasses

08 November 2015

In August I moved from The Netherlands to Malawi to experience live in a different culture on another continent. I have a lot to be grateful for and I do feel humble for the opportunities given to me. The next story is about my experiences with 3 festivals in Malawi. I worked at the Lake of Stars office for 7 weeks and during the festival I worked in the production office; I booked 3 South African acts at Blantrye Arts festival; and I worked as stage manager on the main stage of SandFest. Three fantastic experiences, all with their own highlights and challenges but all brilliant in their own way. I want to share my experiences with you, so you can learn as I have and still do. This blog is my personal story; I hope you enjoy reading it.

Working at a festival in Malawi is very different than in Europe. First of all we have to cope with slow and unreliable internet; we cannot easily download music, watch YouTube videos or make a Spotify play list. More than 80% of people in Malawi do not have electricity, but luckily most have (access to) mobile phones which means they can check email or use WhatsApp. Maybe not daily, so the best way to get in touch with artists and supplier is face-to-face meetings or by phone. Scratch cards for airtime can be bought almost everywhere, and even though a minibus costs peanuts in comparison to our trains or buses, it is not something everybody can afford. Plus public transport can take a while, as you have to wait until the bus is full and it might stop many times along the way.

Another challenge is ink for printers; it is really difficult to buy ink here, so most offices have only 1 toner which means you have to think twice or even three times before you hit ‘print’. So to print meal tickets for volunteers, signs, a production programme or even a list with names of artists and volunteers, the line-up or a paper with the various colours of wristbands and what access they give, can be costly and even impossible (so not done at all). Most offices get their ink from Europe and one toner is gone in no time when you are organising a festival.

Good sound equipment is hard to find, as are sound engineers. Even though I worked with amazing sound engineers whom I respect greatly, we did rename two festivals the Blantyre Soundcheck festival and the Sandfest Soundcheck festival. Again, the guys did very good jobs and worked hard, but it just wasn’t easy. Where to find gaffa tape here? Again, it has to be brought from Europe. Permanent markers, available here but scarce and expensive so they disappear quickly (and dry out). Dangerous situations occur because wires are put directly into the sockets, without the use of a plug and slowly over the weekend, one by one the cables break and the lines don’t work anymore. Sound equipment and engineers are often flown in from Europe or South Africa, which comes with a massive price tag. Luckily there are some good guys here and Music Crossroads trains people to become sound engineers.

I worked at 2 festivals, Lake of Stars and Sundbird Sand Music Festival. I loved both!!! Looking back they are very different, but equally good. I also booked artists at Blantyre Arts Festival, which was challenging but a good experience and we did enjoy ourselves.

Lake of Stars was very well organised. Of course, things can always be improved, but overall it was good. SandFest was not as well organised, but that didn’t really matter; things went well and it all turned out to be good as well. The magic of Africa is when Europeans like me think it will never work, things just seem to workout and improvisation is the way forward. It might take some time or some acts might get canceled, but at the end of the day there is success.

Communication is key and all festivals I worked for/with can improve on communication. To the artists, volunteers and the (prospect) visitors. Where we in Europe are used to forward planning, here things happen more last minute. At Blantyre Arts Festival the poster said EJ, Fosta (from Langa South Africa, but in all communication they stated NL) and bFAKE played on Sunday, on the flyer they played Friday and on the programme EJ didn’t play at all, bFAKE was a DJ and they played every day. Even the stage manager didn’t know who was playing on his stage. SandFest was slightly better, but as stage managers we had to find the programme which we then wrote down by hand on a piece of paper. No clear communication can make it difficult for people, as they want to know what is being expected. Where do they have to be and when, and what will they be doing? Where do we sleep; do we need to bring our own tent and if we do, can we stay the whole weekend? Briefing of crew, volunteers and artists can and should be better, but everybody is learning and we see improvements every year. Next year will be better again and so we all grow!

A lot of it comes down to resources. From internet and (no) printers, to the (amount of) staff, how much accommodation is available on and near the site, logistics like road conditions and power, the budget and expectations. I do not know why, but both volunteers and artists expect a lot more from Lake of Stars than SandFest. Is it because Lake of Stars is already running for 10 years? Or that it is being organised by mzungus who live here in Malawi but are originally from the UK? It seems that people are measuring with double standards. It doesn’t seem fair that more is expected from one festival over the other, as both have the same aim of showcasing Malawi artists and giving the visitors a good time; both have the same struggles as well, as the resources (money, equipment, other materials) are scarce in Malawi.

Lake of Stars offers artists a lot. Before the festival Lake of Stars organised workshops for all Malawian artists who played at the festival this year. These workshops took place in Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Blantyre and more than 42 people benefitted from these workshops about networking, social media, biographies and how to deal with the press/media. The participants received a small contribution towards (local) transport money, coffee/tea and biscuits for breakfast, water and cold drinks, lunch and in Lilongwe and Blantyre photos taken by Malawi’s best photographers. It also was a great networking opportunity and for some a first introduction to the internet where others got support on their communication strategy to improve their online presence. The workshops generated a lot of attention in the press with at least 8 written articles in the newspapers but also TV, radio and internet. Lake of Stars organised these workshops for the artists to make the most of their presence at the festival; so they could network and present themselves in a professional manner to improve (online) marketing and their chances to play at (international) festivals. Something that would last and can help them to build their music career not only during, but also before and after the festival. They invested a lot of time and money into these workshops. The question is, should they continue doing this or keep that money to pay the artists a slightly higher fee?

Other things Lake of Stars offered was transport to/from Lilongwe and Blantyre or transport money if you came from elsewhere. Two guest lists and 2 meals per person on the day of the show and a room for 1 night. On top of that, all Malawian artists got paid for their performance, while international acts (except the headliners) did not and most people at the festival worked for free. In production, the box office, the litter pickers and stage managers the majority did the work voluntary without payment.

I think that Lake of Stars would love to pay everyone (more) for their efforts, but the reality is that it is hard to break even for a festival this size. Imagine all the work that is being done, which starts months in advance. Immediately after the festival, the preparations for the next year start. First the edition that just finished needs to be evaluated before contacting the sponsors and main suppliers for the coming year. Were the sponsors happy and do they want to support the festival again next year? What do the site owners and local chiefs say; are they willing to repeat the festival in their place and do they want to do that for a good price? What we see is that a lot of supplier double or triple their prices every year, making it more and more impossible to cover costs each year. They think lots money is being made by the organisers, but the truth is that the people who benefit most are the suppliers who ask exorbitant amounts of money and not always for a good service.

It would be great if the festivals can give every artist unlimited food, water and accommodation for 3 nights. It would be good for the artists, for networking but also to have fun and enjoy shows from their peers. But what can you do if there are limited spaces? There are only so many beds, so many spaces for tents and a lot of people who want to stay. The lodges double their prices and are fully booked weeks in advance. The campsite is full and cannot accommodate more people because there is no space.

Something I love is that Lake of Stars organised an outreach programme. On Thursday there was a community concert for the local people of Mangochi and on Saturday the visitors of the festival could join a tour around the village. The festival supports the local community in many ways. They teach about sustainability and the wood used to build the stages are now tables and chairs for the local schools. I wish these kind of things would get the attention in the media, but they all ask the same questions with a negative undertone. Hardly any of the papers or radio stations picked up on the story of the community concert or the outreach programme – being interviewed about the workshops was great and we got good coverage on that, but most of the other interviews were repetitive and painful because of rumours and hear-say.

The more successful the festival becomes, the more challenging seems to be to keep everybody happy and satisfied. Like I wrote before, there is always space for improvement and some things should be better organised, but it is not easy in Malawi. There is definitely no lack of talent; there is a lot of music and fantastic artists in the country, but is remains a challenge because of lack of resources and it seems, lack of support from some groups. There will always be people complaining, that is everybody’s right, and one can never satisfy everyone. Learning to deal with negative comments and criticism is something you have to deal with when you organise an event.

The bigger you get, the harder it becomes to give everybody a place to sleep. There are simply not more beds available on or near the site. The best way seems to be to create extra camping space because lodges and hotel are quickly fully booked. Tents are the easiest option, but you cannot pitch tents everywhere because of safety. All artists, crew and volunteers want a comfortable bed because they are working hard. The sponsors also want good rooms because they paid a lot of money to the festival to get their name out there. Without sponsor money, none of the festivals could exist, unless visitors are able and willing to pay more than double (if not triple) the price they are paying now.

Just try to imagine the costs of festivals like Lake of Stars, Blantyre Arts Festival and SandFest. You need generators and diesel to power the stages. The amount of diesel needed is enormous, because sound and lights use a lot of electricity. And diesel is very expensive in Malawi. The generators, like all the drinks, equipment, decoration and people have to be taken to the site. Everything and everyone (artists and crew) need to be transported to the site of the festival. Trucks and buses need to be hired and fuel has to be paid for all these journeys.

Most festivals try to source as much as possible from the local area, but wood for stages and carpenters to build them need to be paid, as do the technicians who bring sound equipment, the artists expect to get paid and the owner of the site wants to see money as well. You need to advertise your event; otherwise no-one knows it is on. So you hire designers to make a logo, a nice flyer, website and poster. These posters need to be printed and distributed. It is good to spend money on PR and communication, so people know what happens where and when, how much it costs, how to get there and what they can expect once they are there; so you hire a PR company. You need to get wristbands for accreditation, lights for the stages and signs to show people the way.. You do need to have medical staff available at all times and maybe have an ambulance on standby. Security doesn’t come cheap and the police also hands in a bill for the extra work they are doing around your festival. Unfortunately security is needed, as all festivals have to cope with theft. It can be a challenge finding good security staff as they need to be firm but friendly, honest and hard, vigilant and good communicators.

There should be a production office with some computers, a printer, (money for) phone calls and radios should be hired if you have a big site. Blantyre Arts Festival didn’t have a production office, leaving artists stranded not knowing what to do or where to go. At SandFest there were not enough radios, making communication between artists liaison and the stage impossible at times. What was missing was water, leaving artists and volunteers thirsty almost resulting in unhealthy situations. You cannot expect volunteers to buy their own water; it should be top priority to have enough to drink for volunteers. Much more important than food, even though that is also important if you work 10-20hrs days.

Most festivals run an office for many months to organise and prepare everything, an office with bills for rent (plus electricity & water), communication (telephone internet, transport, stamps, paper, pens, ink, envelopes, etc.), and wages (nobody can work voluntary year-round without payment because you need some money to live) .This list goes on and on. It would be boring to mention every expense, but you can imagine the list is long and to organise an event is costly.

This money should be earned back through ticket sales and hopefully you can find some funding and sponsorships cover part of the costs. At the end of the day, unless you have more than 10.000 paying visitors, it is tough if not impossible to make money from a big festival like the ones I describe here. If you keep it intimate and small, there is a chance to make some profit but if you want a 2- or 3-day festival with multiple stages, lots of performances, and good facilities for the visitors, you will need to sell a lot of tickets for a high price to break even.

It’s all about the details, but it seems to vary what people expect and accept. Is it important to have a beautiful decorated site and stage? Is it worth it to spend a lot of money on flying in lights from another country or not? Is it necessary to organise transport, accommodation and meals for all artists or can you give them more money so they can sort it out for themselves? Do you have to involve the community, organise workshops and build school furniture after the festival?

At the end of the day, it depends on your objectives and your target group. One is not better than the other! Why do you organise the festival, what are your goals? Who do you want to attract to the festival and what are their expectations?

If one decides sustainability is important, than it is a choice of the organisers that has to be respected. They choose to spend money on different things, which is fine. If the other aims at attracting a more local audience and books one of the biggest artists on the planet, than they have the right to do that. I do want to advice not to forget the rest of your programme though. The headliner sells the tickets, I understand that; they have to be pampered and treated well, but other artists also deserve your attention, a place to sleep, a bottle of water and good sound.

The organisers all have the same goal of organising a festival that is enjoyable for everyone. They all face the same struggle of finding money to finance everything, they both have to cut some corners or accept a lesser quality than desired because of limited resources. All festivals deal with the challenge of supply and demand, what can we afford and how can we try to break even. And all these festivals want to improve every year; make it better and fulfill the wishes and needs of everybody involved, from the local authorities to the site owners, the crew and volunteers, the artists and of course the visitors.

You can never please everyone, but I can guarantee you that they are all working hard to make it as close to perfect as possible. People will always complain, but please look at the hard work, the dedication and passion they all put in to create an experience for all to be enjoyed and to profit from in one way or another, either through creating opportunities for artists to perform for a big crowd, for volunteers to get work experience, for local businesses to gain more income, and for the visitors to enjoy the arts, have a drink and have fun!

After the festival you look back. I look back at all 3 festivals with positive feelings, even though I felt there was enough to complain at all the festivals. I got frustrated because transport came 4 hours late, upset because I had to wait in line for 1,5hrs to get something to eat, I nearly cried sleeping in a leaking tent and astonished with the lack of communication but in hindsight, I LOVED IT!! ZIKOMO Lake of Stars, Blantyre Arts Festival and SandFest; thank you for giving me the opportunity to work with you, to learn, to experience events in Malawi, to meet lovely people and to enjoy fantastic music. The music in Malawi is fantastic, the people are friendly and I’m one happy woman that I am here to be part of it. See you next year at Malawi festivals!!