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Something to declare: New visa requirements are leading to cancelled concerts and tours

They nearly caught Liza Minnelli out - but African artists are suffering the most

By Elisa Bray
Thursday, 29 May 2008

Liza Minnelli almost missed the start of her first British tour in 20 years when she did not have the correct visa � AFP/Getty Images

When Konono No 1 could not get their passports in time to play an African event at Tate Modern over the Bank Holiday weekend, not only did they disappoint the fans who were going to be attending the show, but they also highlighted the problems for African artists trying to get their music heard in the UK. The Congolese band were booked to play an exclusive event which also featured two films by the acclaimed Senegalese film director Djibril Diop Mambety and, as well as a full live set from the band, the evening was due to feature them accompanying a screening of Mambety's 1969 short film Contras' City.

The big hurdle for many African artists is that, if they live in a territory that does not have a UK office that can issue visas, they must travel to another country in order to obtain them. Because there is no British consulate in Mali, each individual from a Malian band has to be flown to Senegal at their tour-bookers' expense for fingerprinting. This is on top of flight costs, touring expenses and the cost of the visa application which has, until recently, was £200. Inevitably, strict guidelines apply so every musician in every band that wants to play in the UK must provide evidence for a work visa to prove they are in the band.

Since the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a war zone, Konono No 1 had to obtain their visa from Kenya. But the delay in issuing passports in Africa meant they had to miss out – the Congolese minister of the interior finally secured them diplomatic passports four days before the show, but, unfortunately, three days after they were supposed to leave.

For other musicians, it is the changes to UK visa regulations which now require non-EU citizens to provide fingerprints for the new biometric visa that is causing the difficulty.

Like Konono, west African jazz band Les Amazones de Guin�e had to travel to obtain their visas in order to play Africa Day at Trafalgar Square. But their £3,500 journey from Guinea to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, including travel, four nights in a hotel and visa applications for all 12 band members, was a waste of time and money. The band were refused entry. Robert Urbanus of Sterns, who released their critically acclaimed album, said: "They were pretty upset. They wanted to strut their stuff in London and, hopefully, it would have led to bigger things. Before you could send one person with all 12 passports. Now with the biometric nonsense everybody had to go there."

It seems an awkward time for African musicians to be finding it increasingly difficult to make it to the UK. You only have to look at the crop of popular young bands from the UK and America incorporating Afrobeat into their indie rock music – Oxford quintet Foals, Brooklyn bands Yeasayer and Vampire Weekend to name a few – to see the influence and popularity of African music on the current hip music scene. But for artists from Mali, for example, the obsta cles that lie in the path that leads them to dates for their UK fans seem to be ever-increasing.

As David Jones, who works for international live music producers Serious Music, says, the problem is not new, but the increasing costs are elevating the difficulty in getting artists to perform in the UK. "They have been a huge logistical headache for many years, but it's only in the last few years that the costs of visas and work permits have soared. A few thousand pounds and all the costs of driving a group thousands of miles to get visas may be small change to a major touring act, but it's a huge hurdle for both a new African act and a British organiser."

Jason Walsh, of Musicians Incorporated, a tour booking agency that specialises in working with African artists including Toumani Diabat�, Tinariwen and Vieux Farka Tour�, explains: "With Vieux Farka Tour� we had several proofs that one of his band members plays with the band, including newspaper articles with his name included, video footage of him playing with the band and a guarantee from the artist himself, then we are told a day later we'll need more. Then touring these artists almost becomes completely prohibitive. We are on the brink of having to deny an awful lot of artists their touring profession because it's becoming too expensive. It's no longer financially feasible to tour them anymore. It's a particularly desperate situation for African artists. It's unfortunate despite the change in recent visa rules which is supposed to help performance artists coming into the country. It seems to have forgotten about African artists."

But the problem is far from limited to African acts . This week Liza Minnelli almost missed the start of her first British tour in 20 years when she did not have the correct visa. Having arrived at Heathrow airport, the star found herself held at the front of the immigration queue when she discovered she did not have the work permit that would allow her to play. A delay with the paperwork meant that Minnelli was only granted access hours before her show at the London Coliseum was due to begin. The Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov was less fortunate, however. His show at the Barbican was cancelled earlier this month because of the necessity for the new biometric visa. For years Sokolov has had someone apply for his visa on his behalf, but now it meant he would have had to travel from Verona, where he lives, to Rome to provide fingerprints.

Of course musicians need to leave enough time for paperwork to be processed in order to obtain their visa in time. Some are luckier than others. Les Savy Fav, from Brooklyn, missed two shows and just scraped their way into their show at All Tomorrow's Parties festival ATP vs Pitchfork this month, after their permit was turned around just in time. The American anti-folk singer songwriter Jeffrey Lewis had to miss a sold-out show at the Windmill in Brixton, London, back in 2005 when he was refused entrance for not having the correct visa.

The obvious appetite in the UK for African music and the breaking down of barriers between African and Western music has been represented by Damon Albarn's Africa Express. Its last show in Liverpool also had to overcome hurdles, says Walsh: "We went through a great problem when we had to call the highest ranks of government to help us when we were being met with various obstacles. We were incredibly lucky. We were fortunate in knowing someone who knows someone else. For the average professional touring artist and the other agencies dealing with artists who are not in the commercial arena, they do not have the same power.

"The image of all these governments trying to be socially and culturally aware is just complete rubbish. If you want to bring this scene to its knees this is exactly the way to work."

But it is not all negative, as Jones points out: "What is particularly important is that musicians from other countries should be able to come here freely and develop new music with UK bands and musicians, not just making fleeting visits. There are new and exciting artists coming over – Mayra Andrade from Cape Verde, Bassekou Kouyate from Mali – they're playing festivals and shows across Britain, and they'll both be playing the BBC Radio Awards for World Music poll-winners concert, that we are producing, at the Royal Albert Hall as part of The Proms in July."

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