Entering Brexit Britain for Womad festival is “so difficult and humiliating” that performers are giving up says organiser

"Artists have accepted our invitation and then looked into the visa process and told us, sorry we’re just not going to do this. That’s a situation we should be ashamed of," says Chris Smith

Seun Kuti and Roy Ayers playing at Womad

Securing visas to enter the UK and play at the world music festival Womad is now proving “so difficult and humiliating” that acts are turning down organisers’ invitations and staying away, according to the festival director Chris Smith.

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On the eve of the 2018 festival — which takes place at Charlton Park in Wiltshire and is a major part of this weekend’s Radio 3 and 6 Music schedules — Smith told Radio Times that it “genuinely broke his heart” to see the effect that the UK visa process was having on many of the world’s greatest musicians.

Womad, founded by the musician Peter Gabriel, first took place in 1982. It occupies a unique place on the global festival scene, and has expanded into a number of other countries including Chile and New Zealand.

This year’s Womad UK brings together acts from 128 countries. “The best music you’ve never heard of” is the festival slogan, and Smith believes that “the world has never needed events like Womad more than it does now. It stands for tolerance and understanding and learning and open-ness but that culture is being crushed as politicians lurch to the right.”

A tightening up of visa controls goes hand-in-hand with the change in the political climate, Smith believes. “There are good people in the Foreign Office trying to help us make Womad work but the message is going out that Britain is a difficult place to get into or even closed. My fear is that the situation is only going to get worse.

“We’ve had situations where say an African artist has been due to come who plays a particularly rare instrument, and we’ll be asked, ‘Can’t you find someone in the UK who plays that instrument?’, which is absurd.

“The saddest thing is always the number of artists struggling to get visas to come and perform. What we’re seeing this year is unexpected and even more depressing, which is artists saying we’re just not going to tackle the immigration system, saying it’s too difficult and too expensive, and it’s humiliating. Artists have accepted our invitation and then looked into the visa process and told us, sorry we’re just not going to do this. That’s a situation we should be ashamed of.” 

Womad is trying to tackle the problem by sending members of its team to the Continent to meet artists and help bring them into the country rather than meet them within the UK. “African artists can get as far as say Paris or Rome quite easily,” Smith explained.

“It makes me worry for the future. It won’t put us out of business, but after this year’s festival, Peter and I are going to have to have a long conversation about what we do about this — how we can continue to support artists getting across our borders. We want to do everything we can to support them.”

Blaming the Brexit vote and the “unforgivable” conduct of politicians, Smith said that Britain “needed to be very cautious about how it is viewed by the rest of the world”. He said that everywhere he went travelling the globe to book acts, the reaction was the same. “It’s always, ‘Brexit — what is happening?’ People can’t understand what we are doing. It certainly isn’t painting the UK in a good light internationally.”

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Womad is being covered on Radio 3 with a series of broadcasts throughout the weekend, the first at 10pm this Friday, 27th July. On 6 Music, Cerys Matthews’s Sunday morning show (10am) comes live from the festival