you're welcome

As I sit here re-digesting another last-weekend-of-July tradition, I can't help but surrender to my outward frustration at where the world is heading. If you know me well, you will know that this festival is part of my being - and if you don't, here is some context: since day one, arriving in the UK from Madagascar at age six, I have been very lucky to have attended WOMAD festival (World of Music and Dance) every year. Each year, I bring a festi-pal - we would go shopping, listen and bop to some great (and often obscure) music, and eat some of the best food and flavours the big wide world has to offer (hellooo Hot Flavours jerk chicken 😋). So, as you can imagine, when this year's WOMAD approached I was very excited to see what was in store for us. Who would I discover for the first time this year? What delicious foods would I get to try? However, even before I left London, family and friends had started sharing articles with me about how "Brexit" was impacting events like WOMAD, and would do so for the foreseeable future. Festival over, I surrender to the fact that they were right.

😶 Just after handing in my third write-up of WOMAD festival, I realised two things:
  1. I had gone way-hay-hay beyond the word count limit (hello 600 words last year, hello free-writing 1,667 words this year - sorryyy Mr Editor)
  2. I wasn't done (oh, hey there little Ranty McRantface III)
In all seriousness, after finishing my review for WOMAD 2018 and a few weeks of reflecting, it has now hit me how close to my heart this particular issue is: the high likelihood that artists from around the globe will no longer find these fine British soils a viable and/or attractive destination to continue sharing their music with. This year's festival kind of threw me off - because as much as I generally enjoyed the music, the great food (oh hey again jerk chicken) and the company, it just wasn't the same WOMAD from previous years.

🚗 ● Pre-WOMAD

Driving to WOMAD, thanks to my personal chauffeur and festi-palside-kick Nics, something weird happened. Last year: I had found a playlist on Spotify called Easy 90s and we spent a high percentage of our time in the car belting out the classics from our yout'. This year: I decided to bring up the aforementioned articles about WOMAD, particularly one by Chris Smith in the Radio Times which I'd read the day before meeting. We then proceeded to spend approx. 90% of the drive down to Malmsbury discussing how awful the situation was, race, culture, and what a WOMAD experience is for us. We didn't play any music, we just talked the road away trying to solve the world's problems. 

Going through the 3-day programme over the drive also gave us some mind-space to prioritise who we wanted to definitely see, and make some sort of vague plan for each day. This exercise highlighted three interesting observations for me:
  1. I didn't recognise some of the headliners (enter: Leftism)
  2. The level of "Europe-somewhere" fusion seemed higher than usual across the line-up
  3. The proportion of artists from "across the world" seemed to under-index in artists from South-East Asia, Central & South America, and island music minus Haiti (therefore over-indexing on Europe, Scandinavia, North Asia and America)
If I had an infinite amount of time, and inspired by this geeky review from the BBC on the % female headliners at UK festivals, I would love to run some more stats on WOMAD specifically on 1) the global make-up of the artists represented, 2) same for stalls and food, and 3) same-same for the attendees. (Team WOMAD, if you are reading this, I would genuinely love to geek-read your stats!).

If I hadn't read Chris' Radio Times article, I would have been a bit confused by this "Europeanised" (or as Nics liked to call it the "Finnish") version of this year's "world's festival". You know times are tough when you are the leading festival in World Music, and you invite both veteran and new World Music artists to the UK to perform, and some actually reject your offer because of the UK's "difficult and humiliating" visa process. As pops-chops has told me, this isn't a new challenge, but a challenge that will no doubt get worse post-Brexit. With this in mind, I was both a little disappointed but equally not surprised by this year's line up.

🙋 ● During-WOMAD

Arriving on site, the familiar vibe and excitement of the weekend ahead took over. Whatever, this bill still had some incredible artists on it - including legends and long-time favourites like Amadou et Mariam of Mali, Amaparanoia of Spain, and Daara J of Senegal. It also had a bunch of artists headlining that neither of us had heard of like Leftism... Thievery Corporation... 😳 Which I would have initially put down to a "generation Millenial" thang until Nicole text me on the Monday we got home and said her partner knew who Leftism were and thought we were weird for not knowing. Clearly I've been hiding under an enormous rock during the 1990s music scene.

  • F R I Y A Y 🎻 ● Kicked off well for us with legend Omar Souleyman, wedding singer turned world-wide star from Syria, spent the first five minutes of his set teasing us by leaving his solo keyboard player on the biggest Open Air stage on the site to play while he sang from somewhere in hiding. As soon as he appeared in his magnificent robes, I knew this guy had hit-up a fair few weddings and torn the house down. Then we had a lil jig and giggle to Sharon Shannon from Ireland, followed by a quick run to the car for shelter and clothes change as it had started to rain a little. Next, we found ourselves in the Siam tent, bopp-sa-bopping to the legendary Daara J Family, as they rapped in Wolof, French and English and bounced around the stage with all of the energy in the world. We then hopped over to the BBC Radio 3 stage to wait for a late night live performance by Tal National of Niger. Nics and I took turns selecting food, (I went for Hot Flavours jerk chicken, obviously, where I made a new pal called Naima who also loved jerk-chicken - my 7 year old twin), going for a wee, getting a drink, while trying to save our good spot - all while Leftism (and what looked like the whole of WOMAD watching Leftism) played what sounded like the same song for about 1h 45m. LOL. As Nics ate her food and chatted to me, I genuinely fell asleep (HA) I was so tired, but then Tal National came on and their music just buzzed through my body and we danced till the end before heading home, via the hot doughnuts stand, obvs.
  • S A T Y O U R D A Y 🎸 ● Started off a little slower. After a leisurely breakfast, we arrived on site to catch the end of Orchestre Les Mangelepa, one of Kenya's (via Congo) famous big bands from the 1970s - think excellent dance moves, great harmonies, and colourful stage presence from adorable gents in their 60s and over. Wish we'd caught more. We then moved to watch Havana meets Kingston, which we spent about ten minutes at because it felt more like Havana met Kingston and then just stayed in Havana LOL, it was a very individualistic "collaboration". With energy levels faltering, we decided to head over and catch Dobet Gnahoré from the Ivory Coast (via France) - possibly one of our best decisions of the whole weekend because we were not disappointed. We were treated by an absolute seasoned performer with Wakanda like dance moves, a voice both powerful and beautiful, and strength and energy like no one else over the weekend. Nics and I were so emotional after her performance, we said FCK IT and queued for her autograph and a cheeky-selfie even though it had started pissing it down (which is pure dedication). I then watched a bit of Mr Jukes, and left to grab food (jerk chicken round two) and stocked up on some liquorice, leaving Nics to enjoy. Nics then headed off to see Electric Fields from Australia while I headed to get a good spot for Amadou et Mariam of Mali. Ten minutes before they started, the heavens opened and I cuddled my nearby neighbours because f*ck getting cold. Five minutes into the set, the rains stopped, and Amadou et Mariam gloriously treated us to a journey through life in Mali - at one point, I actually closed my eyes and felt like I was walking the streets of Bamako on a Sunday.
  • S U N D A Z E 🎺 ● Started off pretty chilled and turned more emosh (for me anyway) as the day went on. Starting with Mélissa Laveaux from Haiti, a woman with a gorgeous voice and hauntingly beautiful guitar playing. I felt her exploration through her music and it just hit quite a personal cord with me. There was a classic clash, so we also ran over to the smaller BBC Radio 3 stage to enjoy Calan's vibrant and inspiring modern Welsh folk, including poetry and impressive clog jigs. We then moved to the Open Air stage to watch Maalem Hamid El Kasri and I was hooked immediately by the hypnotic rhythms and distinct sounds from the guembri and krakebs. I just freekin' love gnawa music, it's super moving. We then moved onto BCUC from South Africa but it was a bit too intense for me after feeling so emosh, so we went to do a bit of shopping before watching Amaparanoia of Spain - who was fab as per usual, but I had to run away midway as I was both umbrella and waterproof free, LOL. Soon, it was approaching our last gig, so we went to hunt down more food (jerk chicken round three for me, minus plantain cause they had RUN OUT *cries*, jollof rice and chicken for Nics). Last but not least, we were totally mesmerised by the stage-presence and incredible talent of another talented Haitian (via France) Moonlight Benjamin, where voodoo vibes met sensual dance movements and a powerful voice. It was a glorious ending to a great long weekend.

🚨 ● Post-WOMAD

After a busy three days, I realised that I wasn't quite satisfied. There is no doubt that I saw some great performances, from both veterans and newbies on the World Music scene, but I was kind of left hungry for more. Where were all the World Music royalty? The undiscovered music from a remote island in the middle of the great Oceans? Was this really the direction WOMAD was going - more fusion, less unknown music from a part of the world I'd never heard of? I really hope not.

The day after the festival, another article about WOMAD came out - this time, with co-founder Peter Gabriel "urging the government to make it easier for international artists to perform in Britain". This, and several others that started popping up then got a whole host of people to write-in to the press, including pops-chops (read his letter here).

I know the word (enter ominous theme tune) "Brexit" pops up all over the place as the reason to blame many things on but in this case, it's not the cause, it's the cherry-on-top cause. What I mean by that is, as per pops-chops letter, getting international artists from outside our glorious shores isn't a new challenge - particularly for artists from remote and/or developing parts of the world. Even before thinking about applying for visas, you've got to start from the beginning:
  • Depending on where these artists are located, you need to think about the ease and cost of travel - sometimes we are talking remote villages, or islands, literally in the middle of nowhere.
  • Depending on whether these artists have ever left their home countries before, you need to think about applying for a passport.
  • Then factor in costs for marketing, tour transport/van, tour equipment (and emergency spares), tour survival kit (i.e. food, shelter, "pocket money"), promoters, sound engineer, merchandise, wages, and more - most of which would be relatively more straightforward if you are playing "popular music", but here we're talking about unique, often unknown instruments from around the world which need specialist everything - sound engineers and more - to even perform somewhere like the U.K.

⛔ ● It ain't easy, full stop. 

Then, you can start thinking about applying for a visa to enter a country like the U.K. and this comes with a whole host of additional hurdles, which it seems are continuing to mount.
  • You might need to hire translators, lawyers, representatives, and depending on the political stability of the origin country of these artists, you may even have to pay someone something to get the right documents. 
  • If the visa costs, then you need to pay for that. 
  • If the visa is declined, and you and/or your representative want to challenge/overturn, then you will need to pay some more for that.

If you've managed all that, then you might have just about made it. But I have only really listed the financial costs, I haven't listed any time or emotional cost of going through this process, or the adjustment of these artists to often a completely alien culture, for the most part for less than 24h in each place / city / country they are performing in. The speed of work, adjustment, and perseverance needs the stamina of a million bulls - just to perform, sell as many CDs as you can, and move on to the next gig-destination. 

The hope, at the end of all of this, is that these artists can return home from their job to families they have left behind for long-stints of time with money "from abroad" that can hopefully be converted into a much higher worth - to feed, cloth, educate, buy electricity, buy running water, buy medicine, buy presents, you name it, they'll do it. It truly takes a village to raise a village. Some people may read this and think I am obviously narrating this from one of the most extreme of views, but the reality is being an artist within the World Music industry is a full-time, and challenging job. We're not talking about the Beyoncés of the world here - these artists may be the Beyoncé of Croatia, or the Beyoncé of Madagascar, or the Beyoncé of Haiti, or even the Beyoncé of Wales but they still need to hustle hard. It's a niche market, and that means working double or even triple as hard to earn anywhere near as much as a Z-list celebrity from Love Island might make on one sponsored Instagram post. Visa, or no visa, it ain't the easiest of gigs.

💛 ● Close to home. 

It genuinely feels strange to write this down because most people won't realise how close to home all of this is for me. I grew up in a household in the U.K. that thrived on this stuff. This is pops-chops' life and work, and when mumma-bear was in her prime in the 1990s, her band was hitting top spots across World Music billboards, and at one point (I think 2001 or near there) was voted by Time Magazine as one of the top ten best World Bands alongside U2, Ziggy Marley, and Radiohead. It was unreal. But then, 9/11 hit, and the World Music industry had a big knock - bands on tour that year, mumma's included, lost huge amounts of money due to cancelled tours, travel then got harder, and eventually more costly (both financially and emotionally).

Fast forward to early 2017 and I remember sitting next to mumma-bear at lunch in Madagascar and she got a call. She excitedly came back from a long conversation and said: I got a gig! I was excited for her, she loves performing, it's in her blood, and it's what makes her her. Sadly, a week and various conversations later, the gig fell through.

The promoter thought that she (and the band) were based in Europe. When it was confirmed that they weren't in Europe but in Madagascar (surprising really, as they are Malagasy musicians), the promoter asked if she could come over and perform with just 1 or 2 others (her band is made up of 6-7 people, so this is like asking the Spice Girls whether only Baby Spice and Posh Spice could turn up for a gig). After 2-3 days of frantically looking for the cheapest flight options across the interweb, that would fit the promoter's budget and allow her band to cross into the Northern hemisphere, mumma had to give up. It transpired that it just wasn't possible (not even including the aforementioned costs I listed earlier). Gutted, she had to decline. 

This, is the reality now. We, often of the "developed" world, want those from places we don't know to come over and perform, so that we can immerse ourselves in a different culture (#socultured #blessed) and "interesting" music from somewhere "exotic" (I am deliberately "" these adjectives because this is often how people describe music from outside our shores, but these words make me uncomfortable - more on that another time). On top of this, we also pride ourselves (me included) on being cultured, open-minded, open to diversity and ever-hungry to learn. So, why do we make this so hard for ourselves and each other? We want these artists to come to us, and these artists want to earn their living whilst proudly representing their culture - yet, the reality in achieving this exchange is far from easy, or simple. So when WOMAD - a festival I have grown-up in, looking up to strong, talented, Queens of Women from all over the world (enter mumma-bear of course, Oumou Sangaré, Rokia Traoré, Mariam, Césaria Évora, Angélique Kidjo, Mariza, Fatoumata Diawara, this year's Amparanoia, Dobet Gnahoré and Moonlight Benjamin, and more) starts changing because they can't get the artists they'd love to share with the world over to the U.K., then it will have a big impact on me.

I have always felt very lucky to have had such a rich-cultural upbringing, and watching Moonlight Benjamin this year I came to a realisation that WOMAD 2018 for me was bitter-sweet. As I watched her performance, a strong feeling came over me - I want little girls like I was 20 years ago to be able to grow-up in a world filled with the same openness to other cultures and peoples, the same opportunities to see strong female role-models that look like them up there on stage, and the feeling of being part of something bigger than just the U.K.  There is an incredible array of strong, independent, and forward-thinking females in the World Music industry, and it would be a shame to limit what young girls (and boys!) behind my generation get access to. The Beyoncés and Kim Kardashians of this new digital era may be shiny and modern, but I'd be surprised if the Women of World Music couldn't inspire, educate, or just fill their little faces with joy, dance, and warmth like it does mine.

As my festi-pal Nicole said on our drive back to London, this isn't just a bunch of hurdles for these artists, these are also a bunch of hurdles for us - and if we don't do anything about it, we are all going to lose.

🙆 See y'all soon!


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