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“At 23:56 on 23rd October 1963, Zambians rose in reverence of the Union Jack, the de facto national flag of the United Kingdom, for the last time as it lowered, signifying the end of British rule in Zambia.”

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Malawi’s Lake of Stars Festival is one of the most popular music festivals in Africa. The event features a lineup of local and international artists. The 2013 edition was where I first saw Mwayi Hazel Makunganya, professionally known as Hazel Mak, perform. Since then, the afro-house Malawi and UK-based artist has won several awards, grown her social media following, collaborated with Zambian musician Roberto and featured on BBC’s Focus on Africa programme, among other achievements. Nkwazi caught up with Hazel Mak , who is working on a new album, to talk about her career, 2019 plans, her Malawi travel recommendations and more.

Music has always been the centre of Hazel Mak’s life. Her mum tells her stories of how she used to jump on a coffee table and pretend to be Whitney Houston when she was a kid. Always supportive of her dreams, her parents enrolled her in a performing arts school.

When asked to name some of her career highlights she first cites performing at the fifth AFRIMA Awards. “Being the first Malawian woman to perform there is a personal milestone,” Hazel Mak says. Performing on the same stage as one of her favourite bands, Sauti Sol, is yet another highlight for Hazel Mak. So is being featured on the BBC on International Women’s Day to talk about her Malawian Girls Rock platform.

Hazel Mak is not as quick to list her awards and other accolades as she is to name her career highlights. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate winning awards but for me just winning is never enough. My end goal is to create music that lasts forever and to be an artist that paved the way for more Malawian women to be whatever they want to be. I’ve won awards but I get more satisfaction from things like receiving messages from people telling me they were proud to see me featured on BBC Focus On Africa shedding a positive light on Malawi.”

Hazel Mak has a positive outlook on the Malawian music industry and looks up to many of her peers. She is inspired as she sees more and more Malawian artists pushing boundaries. “Kim of Diamonds, Bucci, Theo Thomson, VJ Ice, Nathan Tunes, Elle Mak, Charley, Temwa and Dali keep pushing and are constantly evolving and that’s what influences me.”

Hazel Mak is also a fan of Zambian musician Roberto and jumped at the chance to work with him on the song ‘Jaiva’. “Once upon a time, my manager Tatenda ‘Sway’ Musuwe managed Roberto, so that’s where the connection came from. I was over the moon when he accepted the feature song when we sent it to him!”  In November 2018 Hazel Mak was named Best diaspora act at the AFRIMAs for the Jaiva track. She hopes to work with Roberto again soon.

While Hazel Mak is focused on her music she has career ambitions beyond that. “I want to launch my fashion line in 2019 and increase the visibility of my eyelash brand. I’d like to fund at least three girls a year to complete their studies through my Malawian Girls Rock platform and see a lot more young women lead the future generation of women to be fearless leaders for the further development of Malawi.”

In addition to Malawi, Hazel Mak has lived in Namibia, Ivory Coast and the UK. “Being a nomad has really shaped everything about me; my views on social development, my ear for the perfect instrument in a beat and my vocal ability. In many parts of the world the art of vocal ability really relies on the tone of language and how language can aid vocal range,” she says. Hazel Mak sings both in Chewa and English or a blend of the two she likes to call “chinglish.”

Her fondest memories of growing up in Malawi are during her time in Dedza, near the Mozambican border. She stayed there for six months with her grandparents following the death of her dad. While there she learnt how to build a fire, collect water from a well, cook nsima on a mbaula (brazier) and make toys from dongo (clay). “It was beautiful. I learnt a lot of skills there that people don’t expect a city girl to have.”

For Hazel Mak a perfect day in Lilongwe would start with breakfast at Coco Cakes, one of her favourite hangout spots, and end at a Summer Jam Garden party with live music and an amazing DJ set by award-winning DJ Nathan Tunes. Hazel Mak loves the Summer Jam Gardens, a series of outdoor activities taking place in Lilongwe and other cities across Malawi. A favourite Summer Jam location for her is StaMag Café in Lilongwe. “You won’t want to leave,” Hazel Mak insists. She also likes to hang out at Pixies Bar in Lilongwe’s Area 18.

Hazel Mak has several recommendations for visitors to Malawi. Cracking a cold Booster cider on a hot summer’s on the pier at Red Zebra Lodge in Salima is a must. If you have a sweet tooth she recommends you try the red velvet cake at Coco Cakes. For Sunday sundowners and live local music she suggests Chameleon Bar.

Hazel Mak describes the town of Cape Maclear, also known as Chembe, as a glimpse of heaven. The town is situated on the southern end of Lake Malawi. Also on Lake Malawi is Likoma Island which, Hazel Mak says is a romantic spot, like Bali in Africa.

Hazel Mak believes the biggest misconception about her country is that it is poor. “Malawi is rich in creativity, culture and entrepreneurship and has resilient people. The landscape alone is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered! I often feel like most Malawians simply do not understand the beauty that is Malawi, from food to travel destinations and the talent.”

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