If British musicians’ Brexit frustrations have sometimes lacked focus, the furore surrounding this year’s Womad Festival has clarified matters a great deal.
As mentioned in an earlier blogpost, the festival organiser, Chris Smith, said that many acts refused to come to this year’s festival because of a ‘humiliating’ visa process. In addition to this, of those that agreed to come three were denied entry and a fourth was subject to delays and thus only able to arrive 24 hours after they were due to take the stage. Other recent visa denials at Womad and beyond have included: Serbian DJ Tijana T (three times); Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo; Ghanaian guitarist, composer, bandleader and producer Ebo Taylor (who lost £17,000 in lost flights and fees after a visa refusal); the Mozambique group Djaaka; and, in 2006, Kieran Butler’s violinist partner was deported back to Australia shortly before a performance (immigration officials said that she had not declared she was working).
Even for those keen to come the obstacles can be insurmountable, especially for African musicians. Not only is the application process itself costly—£244 for standard speed, £510 more if you want to do it quickly—but performers also must visit a visa application centre, which in some parts of the world are not widespread. Steve Richard, of entertainment specialists T&S Immigration Services told the Guardian that “Applicants from Mali, for example, have to travel to Dakar in Senegal for their nearest VAC,” a round trip of 2000 miles.
These kinds of bureaucratic problems can, of course, work both ways, with UK musicians who want to work abroad also experiencing difficulties. Composer Howard Goodall recently wrote about his experience of travelling to Texas to rehearse and conduct the world premiere of his work Invictus: A Passion:
‘the commissioning church’s music & arts department were obliged to engage a team of lawyers to work on the visa submission made, initially, to the US Dept of Homeland Security to acquire a ‘petition’….It took weeks…That’s just the first stage. The second stage in being granted a visa (for one week’s work!) is you making your own application online to the US Embassy…This took a few hours of further bureaucracy and the payment of roughly £140 of fees. The third stage is an interview at the Embassy itself, for which one has to allow approximately 3 hours to include a fair amount of queuing.’
We have heard much about European supply lines involving the automobile or aerospace industries. We hear less about artistic supply lines, which have become just as integrated with continental Europe over our 40+ years of membership of the EEC/EU. It is these that enable musicians to tour Europe without bureaucracy, for a mezzo to be flown in from Milan when Carmen loses her voice at Covent Garden, for a British orchestra to hire continental players. It also makes the UK an attractive destination for European students who wish to study in our conservatories (or for teachers who wish to teach in them), and it provides opportunities for our young to study in the EU, through Erasmus or in musical groups such as the European Union Youth Orchestra (which has already moved out of the UK).
At a time, then, when the disgrace of Womad should be leading us to reflect upon our visa regime and to look for practical solutions, we are instead in danger of extending such madness into our dealings with continental Europe too. Do we really wish for the arts scene to be drowned with yet more bureaucracy, for our musicians to lose the opportunities that are afforded by our membership of the EU?
None of this is, as yet, completely decided. In September the government will publish a much-delayed white paper outlining its post-Brexit immigration policy, and the argument on what form Brexit will take, or even if it will happen (see, especially the Independent’s Final Say campaign), will continue to unfold. As such it is important that the artistic community makes it voice heard—whether it be by signing petitions, writing to MPs, going on a marches or simply by talking to friends sensibly about these issues. A failure to act will leave the process in the hands of those who care little for the arts.