Photos: The WOMAD World Music Festival 2018 – Global Joy and Creativity, Threatened by Brexit


Photos by Andy Worthington from the WOMAD world music festival 2018.See my photos on Flickr here!

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Since 2002, the end of July every year has been defined for me by my participation in WOMAD (World of Music, Art and Dance), the world music festival founded in 1982, which I attend with family and friends, working at the children’s workshops. These involve hundreds of children making all manner of wonderful creations, and they culminate in a childrens’ procession on Sunday evening through the whole of the festival site.

I’ve taken photos of the festival every year, and have made them available on Flickr since 2012 — see the photos from 2012 here and here, from 2014 here, from 2015 here, from 2016 here and from 2017 here.

This year everyone expected that the heatwave that began at the end of May would continue throughout the festival, but although Friday, the first day of the festival (and the two days before when we were setting up) were deliriously hot, the weather turned on the Saturday, although the festival-goers’ spirits were generally undimmed.

I had a wonderful time this year, thanks to the great company, in particular, as well as — of course — great music as always from around the world. I also particularly enjoyed helping to facilitate the children’s creativity during the workshops, and also enjoyed playing with Richard from The Four Fathers at the Open Mic at Molly’s Bar (where my son Tyler joined us beatboxing) and also watching Tyler perform with his friends Caleb and Haroun, and, on Sunday evening, taking part in a wonderfully successful workshop with two other members of the BAC Beatbox Academy, Conrad and Nate, who came from London to give a WOMAD audience an exhilarating masterclass in the art of beatboxing.

There was also a noticeable shift in focus this year towards more homegrown acts with a younger focus, which I attributed to a specific desire on the part of the festival’s organisers to attract a younger crowd to WOMAD. But while this was partly true, there was also a darker side to the changes, as was made apparent on July 31, when, as the Guardian reported in a front-page story entitled, ‘A Brexited flatland’, Peter Gabriel, WOMAD’s co-founder, “expressed ‘alarm’ over UK foreign policy” after a number of international artists were unable to perform at WOMAD because of visa issues.

WOMAD’s director, Chris Smith, told the Guardian that “[a]t least three acts scheduled to appear” at WOMAD “were unable to take part” — Sabry Mosbah from Tunisia, Wazimbo from Mozambique and members of Niger’s Tal National, who, Smith said, “were prevented from entering the UK.” Another act, Indian sisters Hashmat Sultana, “also experienced difficulties entering the country”, and “arrived 24 hours after their scheduled performance.”

Peter Gabriel told the Guardian, “The right to travel for work, for education and even for pleasure is increasingly being restricted and often along racial and religious lines. It is alarming that our UK festival would now have real problems bringing artists into this country … [many of whom] no longer want to come to the UK because of the difficulty, cost and delays with visas, along with the new fear that they will not be welcomed.”

Smith called it “the latest example of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy affecting international acts scheduled to perform in the UK”, explaining that this year marked the first time that some artists had “declined invitations to perform“ at WOMAD, “with many citing the difficulty of entering the country under the automated visa system that first created issues for the festival in 2017.”

“Whether their perceptions are real or inflamed, the reality is that artists are deciding that the hassle and cost of entering the UK are neither worth the return nor the exposure to rejection that the process might bring,” Smith said. “For now this is a trickle, but how do we prevent it becoming a flood?”

Smith also explained that WOMAD had been obliged to “ask Home Office and Foreign Office contacts to intervene in individual cases, which led to some visa cancellations being overturned.” However, Smith added, “Sometimes this works but not consistently.” He also described WOMAD’s “intention to embark on urgent discussions with our contacts at the Home Office and our partners in the cultural sector to find a way to welcome international artists and ask them to continue their contribution to making the UK a tolerant and forward-thinking focal point of the global cultural community.”

Peter Gabriel explained, “There have been, and continue to be, good people within the Foreign Office who try to help us every year, but the warnings are becoming clearer: if we want a country which is open to people with ideas, traditions, food and culture different from our own, we have to change the current visa processes and find ways to turn back the growing anti-foreigner tide. Musicians travel for a living, and almost everywhere I have travelled I have been met with kindness and generosity. Do we really want a white-breaded Brexited flatland? A country that is losing the will to welcome the world?”

As the Guardian proceeded to explain, “Freedom of movement for musicians has come under scrutiny since the EU referendum vote. Last week the House of Lords published a report recommending a ‘touring visa’ which would improve access to the EU for British performers post-Brexit and vice versa. Britain’s Incorporated Society of Musicians also called for freedom of movement to be protected for musicians. A report suggested that more than 40% of ISM members had noticed an impact on their work as a result of the Brexit vote, up from 26% in 2017 and 19% in 2016. More than a third of respondents said they had experienced visa difficulties while travelling outside the EU, and 15% claimed to have lost a job opportunity owing to visa issues.”

For further analysis, see this article by Ian Birrell, co-founder of Africa Express, a collaborative music project, who explained how WOMAD “had to cancel one act after British officials put the wrong date in their visas and shelled out £15,000 on emergency visas for another artist last year.” As he also explained, “One famous African group’s manager was shocked recently to find charges of almost £7,000 to obtain visas for his touring party – and these only last three months. ‘It is not really worth coming any more,’ he told me sadly. This was echoed by a leading booking agent, who said artists were being deterred by the complexity, the costs and the lack of humanity in an outsourced system. ‘Often the officers on the borders don’t know their own rules but it’s the artists who get punished,’ he added.”

As Birrell also explained, “It is bad enough that passports are handed over for weeks, preventing artists working, but then they must sit in hotels for days after flying across continents for biometric tests. These are, bear in mind, people from poorer parts of the planet trying to develop careers by visiting a nation that proclaims creative leadership and a desire to improve the world. Sadly, they are often frozen out by costs or confronted by condescending attitudes. I have heard also from Kenyan charity workers, Nigerian entrepreneurs and Ghanaian techies outraged at being treated like illegal immigrants when seeking visas to visit Britain for business from their fast-growing countries.”

He added, “Such issues pale beside bigger problems such as the soaring death rate of migrants crossing the Mediterranean amid the surge of fearful populism. But when artists from developing nations reject the platform to perform at one of our best-known festivals, this should be a warning sign. For it symbolises the hypocrisy of politicians who boast about global Britain, only to then tighten borders, rip off foreigners and treat visitors with contempt. Sadly, the message going out is that Britain is closed for business and culture – from some places at least.”

Also see the album here:

WOMAD 2018

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, linking to my photos from WOMAD, the world music festival in Wiltshire that I’ve been attending every July since 2002, working on children’s workshops with my family and friends, and reporting on the “hostile environment” that saw a number of acts from around the world unable to attend this year, as the Tories’ immigration authorities have taken advantage of the racist environment created by Brexit to refuse some musicians’ visas outright, and to put others off with insurmountable hurdles and obstacles. The festival’s co-founder, Peter Gabriel, and its director, Chris Smith, both spoke eloquently about this lamentable new development.

  2. Tom says...

    Watching from a distance, the Brexit “logic” gets stranger all the time. Why did Boris Johnson resign as Foreign Minister? Because he wants to replace May as PM. His ridiculous recent comments didn’t help. But now, the same racist things are happening worldwide.

    People who for whatever reasons were using coded racism now say that their racist politicians ended that. They did it. So now it’s ok! But one major weakness that the Brexit people have is just repeating slogans w/no thought behind them. This gets old after ten seconds, but they don’t care. The “leftwing” press misquoted Johnson. Really? Did you read his comments? No. Then how can you say that? Instantly they just try to scream louder than you and talk past you to somehow justify themselves. Which makes them even more ridiculous.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Tom. I have to say that I’d love never to have to see or hear from Boris Johnson again, but I suppose it’s unlikely that that will happen.
    However, the good news today is that a noteworthy number of Leave voters seem to be able finally to discern the emptiness of all the Brexiteers’ posturing. As the Observer reports, ‘More than 100 seats that backed Brexit now want to stay in EU’:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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