"We noticed the warmth of the place, the warmth of the people right away. The weather might be cold here, but the people are warm."
Sure enough, when Malawian musician Peter Mawanga and his band, the Amaravi Movement, arrived in Glasgow on the eve of their first Celtic Connections performance, the city welcomed them with the season’s best wet and wintry chill, a far cry from the sun-kissed beaches of Lake Malawi.
“It’s almost like being back in Blantyre, everyone has been so friendly."
Of course, the Blantyre they refer to is not South Lanarkshire’s finest, but the largest city in Malawi, named in celebration of the Scottish birthplace of Victorian explorer Dr David Livingstone.
“We knew all about Glasgow from about the age of eight, from our history classes where we learned about the great Doctor Livingstone. It’s so exciting to be here and we are so honoured to be part of this festival."
The band will be taking to the stage at the Concert Hall this evening alongside Nicola Benedetti to set the tempo for this year’s Celtic Connections festival in the opening gala concert.
A world of music
Now in its 21st year, Celtic Connections 2014 is showcasing more world music than ever before as Glasgow celebrates the coming of the Commonwealth Games to the city.
The festival has stretched out its arms and intends to open our ears to some of the most talented musicians from across the globe, highlighting elements of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural programme.
Peter and the Amaravi Movement join performers from other parts of Africa, India and the Balkans in bringing an international flavour to the traditionally Celtic folk festival.
While many other Malawian musicians play reggae or other musical styles, Peter and his band are inspired by traditional Malawian rhythms and feature traditional instrumentation such as the marimba and thumb-piano alongside their rocky rhythm base.
Peter explained the source band’s distinctly Malawian style: “Our music is Nyanja Music. Nyanja comes from the Malawian word for ‘lake’.
“We have various cultures in Malawi. Our country is divided in three different regions, the north, the central & the south, and the regions are connected by one lake.
“It’s clearer when you travel along the lake to understand these cultures. Our music follows the rhythms of the waves.
Voice of the voiceless
Mawanga’s music is sung in his national language of Chichewa, and he has become known as the ‘voice of the voiceless’ for addressing issues through his lyrics that other African artists tend to avoid.
“Some of the songs have had impact; I have written a lot of songs about the plight of the children in Malawi.
"I’m not afraid to sing on their behalf, to say some things the way that they should be said."
Mawanga certainly doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life in Malawi in his music.
Throughout 2010 and 2011 he worked alongside Andrew Finn Magill, a traditional Irish and American fiddler, to raise awareness of the stigma attached to HIV and Aids.
Together they produced an album Mau a Malawi: Stories of AIDS which channels the hurt and pain of the struggle into music.
From the shores of Lake Malawi to Glasgow
“To be here is such a big thing for us, and actually it’s the first time for us to travel as a band," Peter adds.
The band were first spotted by Donald Shaw, the artistic director of Celtic Connections, when he was invited to Malawi by the Lake of Stars festival.
The festival features local Malawian artists and brings in headline acts such as Vampire Weekend and The Foals with the aim of boosting Malawi’s economy by promoting the arts and travel industries.
Last year, Lake of Stars generated over $1.6 million for Malawi’s economy. Have a look at the highlights from last years festival in Malawi's capital Lilongwe.
Its creative partnership with Scotland is growing stronger this year as it returns to the shores of Lake Malawi in September with headline acts from Scotland (still to be announced) and more Malawian musicians expected to visit our country in 2014 for Summer festivals.
The band spoke about the value of the festival to musicians like themselves and local Malawians, explaining: “Lake of Stars has opened people’s minds to Malawi. There’s nothing else like it in Malawi.
“We’ve been inspired, without it we would be here in Scotland. We know now there’s a world of possibilities.”
Catch Peter Mawanga and the Amaravi Movement at Celtic Connections tonight and Saturday January 18.