The world’s top city? Blantyre, of course, screamed a headline in the UK’s Guardian newspaper on Sunday July 15 2001.
“The best city in the world to live is cheaper than New York, more peaceful than Paris and cleaner than London. Blantyre, the cosmopolitan centre of Malawi in southern Africa, is a city where there is highest quality of life for housing, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment,” reads an intro of the article.
In 2001, entertainment in Blantyre was an item that placed the city on the global stage. ‘Half London’ as the city is popularly known locally, was a beehive for showbiz ranging from live performances to clubing.
The city had friendly venues such as the then French Cultural Culture (FCC or now Blantyre Cultural Centre), Warehouse and Comesa Hall which used to host big events on a weekly basis.
The FCC was key to hosting national events such as Blantyre Arts Festival (BAF) which once brought Mali’s Afro Pop singer Salif Keita and South Africa’s gospel songstress Rebecca Malope.
Gospel live shows by renowned lartists such as Lloyd Phiri and The Happiness Voices, the late Grace Chinga, Wycliffe Chimwendo, Allan Ngumuya, were also a frequent feature at the venue.
Warehouse was another indisputable source of entertainment in Blantyre which once accommodated Jamaican poet and singer Mutabaruka apart from hosting big live performances, secular music in particular. For example, the genesis of The Black Missionaries Band in the country can be incomplete without the mention of the facility because the band had staged numerous live shows there.
Local hotels in the city were also popular venues for visiting artists such as Oliver Mtukudzi, Kanda Bongoman, Mbilia Bel and many others.
Tourists are also fond of the sights of a nineteenth-century St Michael’s Church, the internationally respected Museum of Malawi and the arts-and-crafts centres dotted throughout the city.
Beer lovers remember the days they would sip on Blantyre-brewed Carlsberg beer while lighting up their locally manufactured 555 cigarettes at the many bars, clubs and gaming centres that used to open day and night in the city’s townships.
Apart from indoor venues, BAT ground and Kamuzu Stadium also proved to be convenient venues and a source of live entertainment in Blantyre.
Memories are still fresh of an international concert by the South African reggae icon late Lucky Dube and his Slaves band staged in 1990 at Kamuzu Stadium. While Mafikizolo also lit up the stadium with their unparalleled performance in 2002.
On the theatre front, Blantyre City was home to most theatre and drama groups.
Eric Mabedi of Kwathu Drama Group recalls how Blantyre Cultural Centre (BCC) used to be the Mecca of entertainment in the city.
“We used to hold performances every week at the French Cultural Centre. There was a time when we were booking the facility for the entire month to stage theatre performances due to public demand.”
He adds that most venues in Blantyre used to be booked for a long time by different events’ organisers, including Kwathu Drama Group.
But years down the line, Blantyre is fast fading as an entertainment hub.
Big entertainment events, particularly those that feature international artists are these days flocking to the Capital City, Lilongwe.
For example, last year Lilongwe was a host to Jamaica’s Busy Signal concert on September 3 at Civo Stadium, courtesy of Lucius Banda’s Impakt Events.
The royal reggae family of the Morgan Heritage visited the country twice and also performed in the capital city courtesy of Born Afrikan Productions. Apart from South Africa’s singing sensation Zahara performing in Lilongwe last year, Ugandan comedian Anne Kansiime also had a live performance at Bingu International Convention Centre (Bicc) on July 2 2016, again.
Apart from numerous media reports, writings are clear on the wall that Lilongwe has been a hub of big entertainment events for the past years, hosting artists of international repute.
But what could be the reason for Blantyre to be deprived of big events that boast of international artists? Has Lilongwe snatched the leadership mantle of entertainment from Blantyre? How and why?
“New venues such as Umodzi Park in Lilongwe have created more opportunities for promoters to organise events at a larger scale,” says Q Malewezi, a poet who has held several shows in Lilongwe the past year.
“Umodzi Park is a facility with multiple venues and adequate security. This makes it attractive to promoters to produce events targeting the middle to high income residents. The diversity of Lilongwe’s residents also means it has more niche audiences,” he explains.
Malawezi also adds that Lilongwe has more venues for big shows compared to Blantyre, adding that when venues such as Lilongwe Golf Club started hosting shows, it sparked a culture of patronizing live performances among people.
Wendy Harawa of Lucius Banda’s Impakt Events, which has organised a number of international events in Lilongwe such as Busy Signal concert, says there is not much of choice of venues in Blantyre.
“Experience has shown that people do patronise shows in Lilongwe more than in Blantyre. So, business wise we choose a venue where we will have a return on investment,” says Harawa.
Concurring with Harawa is Blantyre-based promoter Tonderai Jai Banda of Entertainers Promotions who believes that the cosmic shift is due to good patronage in Lilongwe.
“Lilongwe has a lot of foreigners who take entertainment as a way of life unlike here in Blantyre. But as an entertainment promoter, I strongly believe entertainment should sell anywhere,” says Tonderai.