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Page last updated at 23:14 GMT, Friday, 16 October 2009 00:14 UK

A fairytale born in Malawi

Esau Mwamwaya
Esau Mwamwaya was working in a junk shop when he was discovered

By James Morgan
BBC News

Ten years ago, struggling musician Esau Mwamwaya said goodbye to his band mates in Malawi and set off to London to find himself a "proper job".

This weekend, he returns to Malawi as an international superstar - the headline act at the Lake of Stars music festival - the biggest in the country.

His band, The Very Best, is embarking on a world tour to launch their album, Warm Heart of Africa - an explosive blend of pop, afro-funk and kwaito, featuring collaborations with the likes of M.I.A. and Santogold.

And Mwamwaya has transformed from a drummer into an energetic vocalist - calling out to the world in his native Chichewa language: "Tengazako" (Take What Is Yours).

Tin drums

It is something of a fairytale. And it all began with a second hand bicycle that was gathering dust in a north London junk shop.

People asked me - can you really be famous singing in Chichewa? But I wanted to be myself
Esau Mwamwaya

The Very Best

The son of a civil servant, Mwamwaya grew up in Blantyre, playing tin drums in time to his father's Dolly Parton records.

On finishing school, he failed to find work, so instead joined his friend's band as drummer.

"We used to play in a place called the Village Lodge on the outskirts of the capital, Lilongwe. That place used to be real hot. People came from far," he told the BBC.

"But after a while, I started thinking about my life and my future. I was enjoying the music but financially I wasn't okay. I was afraid of reality - I thought I might end up in a desperate place."

In 1999, he said goodbye to his band and his family and emigrated to the UK "looking for some greener pastures."

He landed in Tottenham, London, and set up a junk shop in Clapton - selling "anything you can imagine" from pool tables to electrical appliances.

"It was the kind of shop you just have to come in and see what I've got. It was rubbish - most of it," he laughs.

"But you might find some clothes if you were lucky."

Lake of Stars 2008
The lakeside party continues for three days... and nights

It was from this junk pile that he stumbled upon some unlikely treasure.

A customer buying an old bicycle turned out to be Etienne Tron, one half of the electronic band Radioclit.

"Etienne was a regular. He used to pass by my shop. And one day when he came in for the bicycle, he asked me if I do anything else apart from being a shop owner.

He didn't think much of my drumming, but when he heard me sing...
Esau Mwamwaya

The Very Best

"I told him I was a drummer and it happened that Radioclit was looking for an African percussionist.

"He asked me to a house-warming party that night. Everything began with that bicycle."

There followed an invitation to the studio, to audition with Radioclit's Johan Karlberg.

"He didn't think much of my drumming," admits Mwamwaya.

"But when he heard me singing on top of the tracks on his laptop, he said: 'It looks like you can sing - can we try something?'"

Hype begins

Every Thursday, Mwamwaya would take a day off from his junk shop and go to the studio.

"We started out just having fun. For a long time I didn't even realise we were making an album," he says.

But the tempo rose when Mwamwaya cut a track with M.I.A. - singing over her track Paper Planes.

The track - Tengazako - received hundreds of thousands of plays on MySpace.

"So many people loved it. That was the first time I realised - we can be big. It gave me some momentum - the hype began," he says.

Lake of Stars 2008
Lake of Stars brings Malawian music to an international audience

The junk shop was quickly abandoned to begin recording the Very Best's debut album. But still many obstacles remained.

"Some people asked me - can you really make it - singing in Chichewa, a local language?" said Mwamwaya.

"But I proved them wrong. I wanted to be myself - someone who is born and raised in Africa. I didn't want to pretend to be other people."

Few Malawian artists have achieved global fame singing in Chichewa - the notable exception being Wambali Mkandawire.

In Malawi, everyone is talking about Lake of Stars
Esau Mwamwaya

The Very Best

Yet while Mwamwaya is breaking through on the world stage - he is comparatively unknown in his native Malawi, especially when compared to traditional favourites Lucius Banda, Joseph Tembo and Wendy Harawa.

"We gave people in Malawi our first bootleg mix tape, but they didn't really understand it," says Mwamwaya.

"They heard me singing over the top of Michael Jackson songs and they freaked out.

"But now we have the album, we are going to promote it in Malawi as much as we can."

'On the map'

His performance at this year's Lake of Stars, in Mangochi, marks his arrival on the national scene - placing him on stage next to traditional favourites like the Makambale Brothers, and international DJs like Nihal from BBC Radio One.

"In Malawi, everyone is talking about Lake of Stars," says Mwamwaya.

"It's a unique festival for us because it's international. You have an opportunity to meet people from UK, America... it's cool.

Founder Will Jameson on why he set up Lake of Stars

"And importantly, it puts the Malawian type of music to the international audience.

"In the western culture, Malawian music is not that popular - not like music from Mali and Senegal.

"But maybe activities like Lake of Stars can put Malawi there too. I'd like to help put Malawi on the map."

Mwamwaya is happy to admit that when he steps on stage on the lake shore, he may receive a bigger cheer from the foreign tourists than people from Blantyre. But he plans to win them over.

"When I play live in Malawi, the reaction is good. They think like 'Wow - Who is this guy singing in my language?

"When I get on stage at Lake of Stars, I will just forget everything and give as much as I can to make the people happy.

"I want people to know me as I am - as Esau from Malawi."

Lake of Stars 2008
The festival helps fly the flag for Malawian tourism



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