Saturday, December 6, 2014

Arts Festivals: For What?

They are the in-thing: Arts festivals.

But how beneficial?

Malawi has, for the past 10 years, hosted a number of arts festivals and entertainment events, among them the Lake of Stars, Chitsinda cha Ndakatulo, Land of Poets, Blantyre Arts Festival, the City of Stars, Sand Music Festival, among others. These festivals have, undoubtedly, contributed towards the development of the arts in the country.

For us to appreciate the extent to which these arts festivals and events have contributed towards arts’ development in Malawi, we just have to look at the positive impact of the Lake of Stars festival, which used to take place along the shores of Lake Malawi. I know of some foreign tourists who made it a point to put the event on their calendars, and come to Malawi whenever the festival was in season.

This means, apart from having fun, they were bringing the much-needed foreign currency into the country, thereby contributing towards the economic development of Malawi. Apart from bringing foreign currency, these people, as well as local patrons, were buying merchandise from curios sellers, painters staying in these areas. I think we all appreciate the fact that we, as a country, have been unable to fend for ourselves for close to 50 years now.

During these 50 years, we have grown so much used to hand-outs that we see no reason to fend for ourselves. That is why, in these 50 years, we have not explored other means of generating more income, apart from punishing the few that work through taxes, including foreign exchange.

Do you think that we will sing the song of maximising income from mining, agriculture and education, among other areas, for ever? No. And that is where events such as arts festivals come in. While it could be true that resources generated through these festivals and events, especially when they involve foreign patronage, are not enough, it is equally true that the foreign exchange that we get through such festivals trickle into the country quicker than financial assistance from development partners.]

This, dear reader, is what arts festivals such as Lake of Stars, Chitsinda cha Ndakatulo, Blantyre Arts Festival, City of Stars, Sand Music Festival, Land of Poets, among others, try to achieve, and to good measure.

Breeding ground
Just recently, Malawi played host to the City of Stars and Sand Music Festival. One of the interesting aspects about these events was the bringing together of local and international artists. 

While the foreign acts invited to perform were, rather, big names already, I found it refreshing to see organisers of, say, Sand Music Festival, include the likes of Joe Gwaladi and other artists who are often overlooked and given a cold shoulder among the list of performers. Apart from these ‘forgotten” but great artists, those who took some time off their daily chores and trekked to Mangochi were entertained by the likes of Achikulire Che Paul Banda as well as foreign artists.

Now, that is what we call developing the arts industry because established artists, budding artists, and foreign artists were brought to the same stage. The same was the case with City of Stars in Lilongwe, where, apart from local artists, a region of foreign artists entertained patrons who were fortunate enough to be in the Capital City.

Not to be outdone, Blantyre artists also organised their own fiesta,  in the name of the Blantyre Arts Festival. The festival was launched by Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture, Rachel Mazombwe Zulu. This festival, coming barely a month after the commercial city also played host to the Land of Poets festival, really helped expose unexplored talents in the country. 

It comes as no surprise, therefore, to hear people such as Sand Music Festival director, Sir Lucius Banda, saying that such events have gone a long way in uplifting the status of artists in the country by, among other benefits, learning from foreign artists who brush shoulders with them. 

Do we need to say that the local artists who perform at these events also receive an appearance fee, thereby improving their economic status? No. That is obvious I think. The fact remains that these events benefit our artists more than they would have had they stayed home. They interact with their fans, a rare chance, share the stage with foreign artists, and earn money for themselves.

Nascent industry
If the truth be told, Malawi is still far behind when it comes to the development of the arts. Not that we do not have the talent; we have, but it is raw talent. In other words, our artists need to be nurtured, and festivals that attract foreign performers serve as an eye-opener to our artists.

Artists such as South African musician Big Nuz and Zambia’s B 1- who, unfortunately, failed to make it to the Sand Music Festival this year- Zambia’s Organised Family and Zimbabwe’s Nikki do not just perform at every street event. It is, therefore, insulting to criticise people who are doing a lot to promote arts in the country by bringing these artists.

In a country where the importance of having music schools and other forms of art is yet to be appreciated, Malawians have no choice but to appreciate the role of these events and festivals.

Those who feel that these festivals and events do not do our country any good do not understand what it takes to promote the arts. In the absence of a Culture Policy, what else can we do? 

My appeal, therefore, is that Malawians should continue patronising these events. It is through such participation that we may appreciate how the arts shape society. Perhaps what we need, as has been suggested by the Director of Culture in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture, Elizabeth Gomani Chindebvu, is to harmonise the organisation of festivals and like events. If we do this, we will be able to analyse the contribution of such events to the national economy.

It is clear, therefore, looking at the increased number of Malawians who are patronising arts festivals and other entertainment events, that arts festivals and like events have captivated the interest of Malawians. If nurtured, they can, inevitably contribute towards economic development in the country.

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