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Coronavirus: African artists hit by cancelled European festivals

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 10 May – 15 May

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Friday, 15 May 2020 11:14

France Jazz
Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour performs with the Super Star of Dakar group at the Five Continents Marseille Jazz festival, in Marseille, southern France, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

Closed borders are depriving musicians of a significant portion of their income. Figures from the world music scene are mulling over the idea of creating a solidarity fund.

Even before the pandemic ground international transport to a halt, the situation of internationally-renowned African music artists was not always sunny. Part of the problem is that the visa process has become increasingly complex, particularly for travel to France.

“Over the past three years, the number of requests we’ve received from people who need help obtaining a visa has tripled,” says Pierre-Henri Frappat, director of Zone Franche, a network bringing together close to 200 individuals and entities (music artists, producers, labels, festivals, media organisations, etc., 20% of which are African) with 30 years of experience in the world music scene.

The organisation is concerned about growing travel difficulties: “Going from point A to point B has always been complicated for emerging artists, but now it’s becoming hard for established music artists as well. Even Salif Keïta wasn’t able to get visas for all of his musicians on one of his recent tours!”

The death of concerts

It goes without saying that restrictions brought about by the novel coronavirus outbreak have further complicated the situation. Everywhere in Europe, and especially in France, major music events have been cancelled or postponed. The Banlieues Bleues Festival was cancelled as early as 13 March, leaving the Malian keyboardist Cheick Tidiane Seck without a way to pay homage to Randy Weston that evening.

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The 45th annual Musiques Métisses Festival, which was scheduled to take place from 29 to 31 May, was postponed.

“We’ll be together again, stronger than ever, in 2021,” the Angoulême-based event team promised.

The Jazz à Vienne Festival, set to celebrate its 40th anniversary, was also put off until 2021. The situation is exactly the same everywhere else in the world.

In Montreal, the Nuits d’Afrique International Festival, scheduled to unfold from 7 to 9 July, said that it is working to put together a special edition to be held in “autumn”. It’s exhausting to try to paint a full picture of the obliterated concert scene: the entire industry is reeling.

When the lockdown is over, a lot of work will need to be done at the European level to reach an agreement about musicians travelling within the Schengen area.

“I spend my days making videoconference calls and leading crisis response meetings to try to find a solution for everybody in a situation in which everyone’s plans have been blown apart,” says Frappat. “We’re playing it by ear based on inadequate or contradictory information from the authorities. Large festivals are prohibited until at least mid-July, they could be postponed, but it’s not yet clear how that will pan out. Franck Riester, the Minister of Culture, has said that small festivals could be held if certain conditions are met, but what sort of festivals have 50 guests per concert?”

Total loss

Many African music artists are being impacted indirectly. They have to take a loss for concert dates scheduled between March and September 2020, with no guarantee that they will be able to resume their European tours later this year.

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“Quite a few of them were already fighting to survive, and they don’t have access to financial assistance in their respective countries to offset their losses. It’s really hard,” says Frappat. “Now we’re mulling over the idea of creating a solidarity fund meant for African music artists who have a working relationship with us. It would be our way of giving them a little of what we owe them. In fact, many of them pay into the temporary show business worker system, including the holiday pay system, without always benefitting from it. Because it’s a tedious process, they often don’t submit a claim to their employer and that keeps them from being able to collect their benefits.”

Dependency of African music artists

The situation also raises the issue of how many African music artists, especially those from the world music scene, are dependent on the European concert circuit. Some perform in their respective home countries rarely or never.

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“It’s a real problem,” says Sébastien Lagrave, director of Africolor, the largest African creative music festival. “Fortunately, the new generations, particularly those involved in the urban music scene, have built their own business on the continent without turning to the Schengen area.”

Africolor is scheduled to take place between November and December. For now, Lagrave has come up with three possible scenarios.

“In the first scenario, everything goes back to normal and our festival will be like a resurrection of the concert scene. In the second, more realistic scenario, the Schengen area borders will still be closed and we’ll have to work with artists who live here, so, for instance, the members behind Le Bal de l’Afrique Enchantée, as they live in France. In the last scenario, a majority of the population is still on lockdown, especially the over 50 crowd, meaning the age groups who make up most of the season ticket holders at cultural venues. Concert goers will have to be spread out, wear masks, etc. That’ll be very complicated!”

Frappat is also wondering about post-COVID-19 life and tools that could help limit the damage.

“When the lockdown is over, a lot of work will need to be done at the European level to reach an agreement about musicians travelling within the Schengen area,” he says. “I hope, for example, that we won’t have to submit to long quarantine periods, as African musicians already try in normal times to optimise their trip length to keep costs down. I also hope that proof of non-contamination won’t have to come from abroad. That could create a new barrier to travel for musicians, just like visas before the crisis.”

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