We must stop treating world-class artists with such routine contempt

Published in The Observer (July 10th, 2011)

Idrissa Soumaoro should have been rehearsing with the celebrated Malian musicians Amadou & Mariam for a show at the Manchester international festival when I called him. Instead, he was stuck in a hotel in Senegal, whiling away the hours watching television and chatting to the staff with whom he is fast becoming friendly.

Soumaoro, one of the most respected musicians in west Africa, flew from his home in Mali to Dakar three weeks ago to obtain a visa for Britain. He expected to stay four days at most while he was fingerprinted, questioned and cleared for entry. Instead, his passport was sent to Ghana for processing and he was left stranded in the Senegalese capital, his manager having to scramble out emergency funds for food and lodging.

Now it is touch and go whether he will make the opening night. And it is not just any old show, but a project so close to the band’s hearts that they have spent more than five years working on it. It is called Eclipse and will be performed entirely in the dark so the audience experience music in the same way as Amadou & Mariam, who are both blind.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Soumaoro, a multi-instrumentalist who spent three years studying in Britain, learning braille so he could teach music at Amadou and Mariam’s school for blind children in Bamako. “I consider England my second home, but this is amazing.”

He is right: it is amazing Britain treats world-class artists in this demeaning manner. Sadly, his story is not unusual. For it does not matter how famous or talented they are. Non-Europeans wanting to entertain British audiences must endure a bureaucratic nightmare which, combined with rising costs, increasing delays and occasional consular rudeness, is deterring more and more of them from coming here. Britain is taking itself off the cultural map.

For all our talk of global engagement and our openness to foreign businesses and footballers, this nation is earning a shameful reputation for hostility to artists from outside Europe. Composers and cinema directors who are household names have said they will no longer come here. One cellist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra who flew in to play an unpaid show was grilled for eight hours then deported for having the wrong visa. Even Grigory Sokolov, perhaps the world’s finest concert pianist, has taken the UK off his touring schedule in anger at our intrusive visa process.

And it is getting worse amid financial constraints and a darkening climate of hostility to immigrants. When hip-hop’s Wu-Tang Clan told their Glastonbury audience they were treated “like the Taliban” by the UK Border Agency, they aired publicly what many artists say in private. One world-famous African musician, one of the politest people I have met, told me he was stunned at the arrogance of British officials.

Cuts and rising costs have contributed significantly to the problem. In recent months, the price of visas for entertainers has risen from £125 to £190 while the service has slowed down, consulates subcontracting processing to fewer and fewer centres. Musicians who tour the world to earn a living must hand over passports for up to 15 working days to perform in Britain. This is the last straw for many people operating in a field where money is tight, with some of the most passionate promoters of global arts and cross-cultural collaboration giving up in frustration. Some even argue Britain is guilty of institutional racism.

“The relationship of the world’s artistic community with Britain is very bad and, as a result, Britain is missing out on some of the world’s greatest artists,” said Jay Visva Deva, an arts consultant who has spent 35 years working with performers from Asia. “More and more artists just don’t want to come back to Britain now.”

Deva works with the Indian folk musician Raghu Dixit, who has made eight trips to Britain in the last 20 months building his reputation. Each time he and his four band members must apply anew for visas, costing nearly £1,000 whether they get them or not, and are unable to tour abroad while their application is processed. They say it only takes two days to get a visa for Singapore, three days for European countries covered by the Schengen Agreement or four days for Australia.

Despite careful planning, Dixit had to rely on the help of a supportive MP to cut through red tape so he could perform on Later With Jools Holland last year. Even this tactic – combined with an emergency flight across India to plead in person with stonewalling officials – failed to ensure he got his visa in time to make a major festival in Glasgow in January, missing the chance to play in front of 1,800 people.

Spend more than two weeks between shows – time for recording perhaps – and you must apply again. Meanwhile, the forms are lengthy, complex and baffling for people whose native tongue is not English. Make one mistake and you are in trouble. The Senegalese hip-hop band Daara J, who have headlined Womad, were refused entry for their album launch last year because their promoter did not have the required amount in his bank account.

Even if the mistake is made by British officials, the artists carry the cost. Malian members of the AfroCubism project sorted their visas in one batch for last month’s high-profile show at the Albert Hall. But a wrong date was written in veteran singer Kasse Mady Diabate’s passport. So he had to fly at his own expense from Portugal to Paris, spend a night in a hotel while he obtained a new visa, then dash over on the Eurostar to perform to 4,000 fans.

There have to be border controls, but all these problems were meant to have been ironed out with new rules bought in to replace work permits four years ago. The points-based system, which lumps some of the world’s greatest artists in with temporary workers, is not working. More than two-thirds of London’s arts organisations have been adversely affected by the scheme and it is becoming near-impossible for new artists to break through – ironically at a time when African music in particular has rarely been hipper.

At the very least, restrictions should be loosened on higher-profile performers and regular visitors; it is not as though these uniquely talented artists are taking away jobs from British workers, after all. The alternative is that at a time when the world is shrinking and western influence is diminishing, we miss out on the most dynamic, inspirational and influential voices from the developing world. Ultimately it is us, not them, who are the losers.

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