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Visa dissonance: Why world music performers can’t always make it to the stage on time

By Ian Brennan
August 31st, 2022

Global musicians can run into daunting red tape when it comes to obtaining a visa to perform at festivals. Soubi Attoumane (left) and M’madi Djibaba (right) of the band Comorian from Comoros had to fly to another country to apply for a U.K. visa to come to Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD festival. Above: They unfurl the Comorian flag to a standing ovation at the concert on July 31.

Marilena Umuhoza Delli

On July 31, the musical duo Comorian took the stage at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD Festival — for the past 40 years a showcase for “world music” stars as well as lesser known international musicians. (WOMAD stands for “World of Music, Arts and Dance.”)

This year headliners included Benin’s multi-Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo, octogenarian Brazilian legend Gilberto Gil and the wild card choice of Oklahoma City’s The Flaming Lips.

Comorian’s two members, M’madi Djibaba, 59, and Soubi Attoumane, 69, became the first musicians from Comoros to ever appear at WOMAD. An audience of hundreds listened to their original songs with ear-catching titles: “The Devil Doesn’t Eat Papaya, He Eats Fire” and “My Friends Went Abroad & Were Swallowed by the Waves.” After singing and playing an hour-long set of haunting acoustic music on handmade string instruments, the group earned two lengthy standing ovations and an encore.

But the duo almost didn’t make it to the stage. The reason: It was nearly impossible to obtain visas to travel from their African island nation to the U.K.

Their debut album is called “We are an island, but we are not alone” — which I produced in 2019. But when it came to getting a visa, they said they often did feel as if they were “alone” in their struggle with bureaucracy.

Comoros is located off the southeast coast of Africa. It has a population of around 850,000 people. The main island, Grande Comore, is a mere 396 square miles (slightly smaller than Rome, about a third larger than New York City). It’s a country that many people aren’t familiar with. The most common response I’ve received when speaking about Comoros over the years — even from global music experts— isn’t just “Where is it?” but “What is it?”

With few airlines offering flights to Comoros and almost none doing so daily, it’s fair to say that Comoros is not exactly a travel hub.

The nation gained independence from France in 1975 and today only six nations maintain embassies there (China, France, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates). As is the case for many smaller and less economically advantaged nations, other countries often opt to not maintain full-time diplomatic missions. So a Comorian citizen typically must first travel to a third accessible nation — such as Mauritius or Kenya — that hosts visa offices where Comorian citizens can apply.

A street performance in downtown Moroni, the capital of Comoros: Drummer D. Alimzé joins Comorian member M’madi Djibaba as they play their handmade instruments.

Marilena Umuhoza Delli

For the Comorian duo, the path to the U.K. first required a 2-hour flight to Tanzania to file for a British visa. Neither man had visited before, and they didn’t speak any of the local languages. They picked Tanzania since the U.K. Immigration satellite office in that country’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, was the only one they could identify in eastern or southern Africa where they could apply for the necessary visa for the target country and pay an extra Added Value Service charge so they wouldn’t have to hand over their passports during the application period. This option enabled them to fly back home to Comoros after the visa appointment rather than being stranded abroad as they awaited a decision.

There was a lot of prep. The U.K. visa application involved filing a 66-page application. The flights to Tanzania required not only the airfare but the additional cost of taking PCR tests for both flights — going and returning — to prove they did not have COVID (even though both men were fully vaccinated). Then after flying back to Comoros, they were required to immediately ship their passports back to the visa office in Tanzania (with the fastest “express” courier taking 5 days) while awaiting a verdict.

After more than two months of suspense, the visas were approved mere days prior to their scheduled flight. Yet they still had to get their passports back in time to fly out of Comoros.

Unable to travel without their passports, M’madi and Soubi fortunately had a friend named Toimimou who was willing to fly to Tanzania and wait at a hotel in the hope that the passports would arrive. After a couple of days he got the documents and took the first flight back to Comoros, handing the passports off to the musicians at Moroni Hahaya International Airport with just hours to spare before their scheduled flight to the U.K.

The kind of visa marathon faced by Comorian is far from an anomaly for musicians. I’ve worked with artists from South Sudan, Sao Tome, Djibouti and Suriname who have experienced similar trials due to their geopolitical isolation, making it even more difficult for these non-English speaking musical artists to reach a broader audience.

Comorian recorded their debut album, We Are an Island, but We’re Not Alone, live on Grande Comore Island. YouTube

And it’s not just people in the arts who face visa hurdles. Similar stories have been shared by professionals in business, athletics, education and as NPR reported last month, health and science.

Despite all the visa turmoil, the two musicians from the island nation shined at WOMAD. Longtime festivalgoer Basil Hopper, 51, said Comorian’s set was “one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, authentic performances I’ve ever seen.”

After the show, M’madi beamed backstage. “I just want to share my music with the world and celebrate my country,” he told me. “I would never leave Comoros. I don’t need to travel overseas to know how beautiful and special Comoros is. Comoros is my home. I am proud to be Comorian. I’d never want to live anywhere else.”

Ian Brennan is Grammy-winning music producer (Zomba Prison Project, Tinariwen, The Good Ones [Rwanda], Witch Camp [Ghana]) who in the past decade has recorded in the field forty records by international artists across five continents (Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Asia). He is the author of seven books and his latest, Muse-$ick: a music manifesto in fifty-nine notes, was published last fall by Oaklands PM Press.

Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer who has produced three other Grammy-nominated albums. He is the author of four books and has worked with the likes of filmmaker John Waters, Merle Haggard, and Green Day, among others. His work with international artists such as the Zomba Prison Project, Tanzania Albinism Collective, and Khmer Rouge Survivors, has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and on an Emmy-winning 60 Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper reporting. Since 1993 he has taught violence prevention and conflict resolution around the world for such prestigious organizations as the Smithsonian, New York’s New School, Berklee College of Music, the University of London, the University of California–Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome).

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