Marilena Umuhoza Delli
On July 31, the Comorian musical duo took the stage at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD Festival, a showcase for “world music” stars as well as lesser-known international musicians for the past 40 years. (WOMAD stands for “World of Music, Arts and Dance”.)
This year’s headliners included Benin’s multi-Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo, octogenarian Brazilian legend Gilberto Gil and the wild card pick of The Flaming Lips of Oklahoma City.
The two Comorian members, M’madi Djibaba, 59, and Soubi Attoumane, 69, became the first Comorian musicians to perform at WOMAD. Hundreds of spectators listened to their original songs with catchy titles: “The devil does not eat papaya, he eats fire” and “My friends went abroad and were swallowed by the waves”. After singing and playing an hour of haunting acoustic music on handmade string instruments, the band won two long standing ovations and an encore.
But the duo almost did not go on stage. The reason: it was nearly impossible to get visas to travel from their African island nation to the UK
Their first 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 felt like they were “on their own” battling bureaucracy.
The Comoros are located off the southeast coast of Africa. He has a population of approximately 850,000 people. The main island, Grande Comore, is just 396 square miles (slightly smaller than Rome, about a third larger than New York). It is a country that many people do not know. The most common response I’ve received when talking about Comoros over the years – even from world music experts – isn’t simply “Where is it?” but “What is it?”
With few airlines offering flights to Comoros and almost none doing so on a daily basis, it’s fair to say that Comoros isn’t exactly a travel hub.
The nation gained independence from France in 1975 and today only six countries maintain embassies there (China, France, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates). As is the case with many smaller and less economically advantaged countries, other countries often choose not to maintain full-time diplomatic missions. Thus, a Comorian citizen generally must first travel to an accessible third country – such as Mauritius or Kenya – which hosts visa offices where Comorian citizens can apply.
Marilena Umuhoza Delli
For the Comorian duo, the path to the UK first required a 2-hour flight to Tanzania to apply for a UK visa. Neither man had visited before and they spoke neither of the local languages. They chose Tanzania because the British Immigration satellite office in that country’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, was the only one they could identify in East or Southern Africa where they could apply for the necessary visa for the country. target. and pay an additional value-added service fee so that they do not have to surrender their passport during the application period. This option allowed them to return home to Comoros after the visa appointment rather than being stranded abroad awaiting a decision.
There was a lot of preparation. Applying for a UK visa involved filing a 66-page application. The flights to Tanzania not only required the airfare, but the added cost of taking PCR tests for both flights – out and back – to prove they were COVID-free (even though the two men were fully vaccinated). Then, after flying to Comoros, they had to immediately send their passports back to the visa office in Tanzania (the fastest “express” courier taking 5 days) pending the verdict.
After more than two months of suspense, the visas were approved just days before their scheduled flight. Yet they still had to collect their passports in time to leave the 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 in a hotel in the hope that the passports would arrive. After a few days, he got the documents and took the first flight to Comoros, handing the passports to the musicians at Moroni Hahaya International Airport with a few hours to spare before their scheduled flight to the UK.
The kind of visa marathon faced by Comorians is far from an anomaly for musicians. I have worked with artists from South Sudan, Sao Tome, Djibouti and Suriname who have experienced similar hardships due to their geopolitical isolation, which makes it even more difficult for these non-English speaking musical artists to reach a wider audience.
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 shone at WOMAD. Long-time festival goer Basil Hopper, 51, said Comorian’s set was “one of the most beautiful, heartfelt and authentic shows I have 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 abroad to know how beautiful and special Comoros is. Comoros is my home. I am proud to be Comorian. I would never want to live elsewhere.”
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer (Zomba Prison Project, Tinariwen, The good ones [Rwanda], witch camp [Ghana]) which over the last decade has recorded in the field some forty records by international artists on five continents (Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Asia). He is the author of seven books and his latest, Muse-$ick: a musical manifesto in fifty-nine noteswas published last fall by Oakland‘s PM Press.