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25 juillet 2008

Visa rules force top acts to pull out of Womad festival

Organisers of the country's biggest world music festival were forced to make last-minute cancellations yesterday after three musicians in their line-up were unable to obtain visas to play at Womad. Another two performers – including a headlining star from Nigeria – were struggling to gain entry into Britain for the weekend festival which attracts more than four million viewers. Womad is the latest of a succession of events that have been affected by tougher visa rules.

Seun Kuti, the son of the Nigerian legend, Fela Kuti, who was to play with his father's politically-charged Afrobeat band, Egypt 80, was fighting to gain an artist's visa in the hope of performing on Sunday. He was among the headlining acts listed on Womad's website, along with Eddy Grant and Martha Wainwright.

TeraKraft, an electric guitar collective from Mali, are also facing the possibility of missing their performance tonight. Meanwhile, Kasai Allstars, a Congolese band who have performed all over the world, did not gain a temporary work visa from the Home Office, along with the Pakistani Sufi master, Asif Ali Khan, a protégé of the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and a powerful figure on the international music stage who is often referred to as Pakistan's musical prince.

A statement from Womad added that Kasai Allstars have been forced to "cancel their whole European tour as they couldn't get the visas they needed."

An Indian troupe, the Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan, were also unable to enter the country to perform at the three-day festival.

A spokesman for the organisers said it was an increasingly frequent problem each year, with musicians being denied performances in this country due to "red tape". "Organisers have noticed it's getting harder and harder with more performers in trouble over visas each year, having to go through a lengthier process each time. Three of the performers have not got visas for whatever reason but it has nothing to do with the band as far as I know. These three acts are hoping to play at next year's festival but the fact that two acts are fighting to get visas on the day the festival begins makes things very difficult," he said.

Many devotees of world music will have bought their £150 weekend tickets to the festival, starting today, expecting to see the billed performers who have since faced visa difficulties.

Jason Walsh, who runs Musicians Incorporated, a booking agency for many African artists including Seun Kuti's brother, Femi Kuti, said that, while visa regulations were changing, they still presented enormous difficulties for many African acts. "We have enormous problems getting artists over here from the likes of Mali as there is no British embassy there and we have to fly the entire band – sometimes as many as 20 people – to Senegal, where they may have to wait for days for their visas. This is so financially prohibitive that I can't see why there isn't a deal where artists from these Francophile countries can go through this process at a French embassy. We are working towards greater cultural diversification and exposure to each other's cultural heritage and it's a great shame that these performers can't be seen by people who would otherwise never be able to see such acts. Where else could you see them perform?" he said.

A Home Office spokeswoman refused to comment on the Womad cases but added that each case was "assessed on its individual merits".

Meanwhile, Eddy Grant, who is scheduled to play at the festival after a 25-year career break, has said of Womad that: "It is still about real people from all over the world coming together to play real music."

Visa requirements

Womad is one of the country's many "work permit-free" music festivals, but performers at these events still need to meet certain immigration requirements. As well as complying with immigration rules that apply to all visitors, they need to provide a genuine invitation from the organisers; evidence they will be self-financed during their time here and proof they can pay for their journey home.

By Arifa Akbar, Arts Correspondent,, Friday, 25 July 2008

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