The challenges of festivals

Last weekend the fifth edition of Selam Festival was held. This is a festival that brought renowned musicians like Alpha Blondy in the past. The fifth edition also brought on stage the legendary Mahmoud Ahmed, a celebrated electronic music DJ, Endegena Mulu, and Burundi born French-Rwandan rapper Gael Faye. This year's festival also hosted forums on Ethiopia’s culture, creative arts, workshops on sound engineering, stage lighting and design. Apart from the performances, this year's event also faced challenges. Some of those challenges include the cancellation of the performance of hip-hop artiste Yassin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def, and the interruption of the event due to heavy rain. Related to this year’s challenges and constraints of organizing a festival, the founder and manager of Selam, Teshome Wondimu, sat with Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Why did Yassin Bey cancel his concert?

Teshome Wondimu: It is because of his travel documents. First he sent us an American passport with the name Dante Terrell Smith, with an expiry date of 2019. Accordingly, we processed it with the Ethiopian immigration office and we secured a business visa. Then one day before the date of the concert, around midnight, we received an email from his manager, Bernard H. Jackson, stating that there is a change of name and passport. The new passport does not belong to a specific country. Rather, it says “world passport” with the date of issue being December 17, 2017 and an expiry date, December 17, 2030.

The passport number is 353562, No 8 with a completely new name Yassin Dante Terrell Smith Bey. The email read that it is a last-minute emergency and Yassin will be traveling under his world passport so the name on the ticket must be changed and should be in lower case if possible.

We were expecting him to arrive on Saturday at 9:00a.m. Rather they kept pushing us to change the invitation completely. How can we go through that while the immigration office is closed on Friday nights? It was an impossible task. They could not comprehend what we were saying. We tried so hard to make it happen. So what we can do was change the ticket to the new name. And we kept asking why he cannot travel with his previous American passport?

Was his American passport revoked?

Yes it was but we did not know about the details. This process started a while ago though there were inconsistencies with regard to changing the flight date. We still cannot comprehend why they sent us the revoked passport knowingly. What happened at Cape Town airport was that the staff of Ethiopian Airlines at the counter could not accept his passport; they actually thought he was joking. The artiste and his manager called us and actually ordered us to intervene by contacting top government officials and the head of Ethiopian Airlines. They kept telling us that we have to persuade the government. That was not possible and it was my first time to hear about world passport (the world passport is a document issued by the World Service Authority, a non-profit organization founded by Garry Davis in 1954, citing Article 13, section 2, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. the passport does not indicate the nationality of its bearer, only his/her birthplace. A passport gains credibility only by its acceptance by authorities other than the issuing agent. The world passport in this respect has a track record of over 50 years acceptance since it was first issued.)

We actually started this process a year ago and we were eager to bring him here in Ethiopia for his debut concert. Finally, when we understood it was not possible we posted it on Facebook and at the entrance that he will not perform. Fortunately, we were saved by the presence of Jamaican reggae band Morgan Heritage who agreed to replace him.

How much did you pay Yassin Bey?

What he gave us was a charity price, not an internationally exaggerated price and not that low. We cannot disclose the amount because of the agreement we have. The main issue now is they see this incident as our fault. They kept saying if we want it we could have made it happen. I don’t know what kind of logic that is. What we expect is to get an official apology and pay for the damages they have caused. They were paid in full and his crew came from different parts of the world including technicians and DJs. Cancellation is not new in festivals and concerts but it is Yassin Bey whose music inspired a whole generation of young marginalized black people. Though he is huge elsewhere the majority might not know him but still he is one of the conscious underground hip-hop artiste who has a strong stand about Pan-Africanism and Ethiopia. Additionally, we also wanted to show that Ethiopian festivals have a capability to bring famous artistes and in the meantime setting an international festival standard.

If there were inconsistencies in dealing with the artiste, did you think about revisiting the plan?

When dealing with international artistes, there is a lot of work that should be done. And until Friday we thought everything was going smoothly. We secured his visa and ticket. However, it was at the 11th hour that our plan failed and we are really sad about that.

So what is next in dealing with Yassin Bey?

They should return the money urgently. If they don’t we will take legal action.

Do you think the cancellation will damage the image of the festival?

People actually attend festivals not because of specific artistes. Usually, there are more than eight bands who perform in a day and he might play for about one hour. Following his cancellation, it’s only a few people who were disappointed. Cancellation is a usual phenomenon all over the world. So ours is not unique. The pertinent problem in this festival was the unexpected rain. We chose this time of the season because of the weather. As far as our knowledge is concerned, it was a good month for outdoor activities. Unexpectedly, on Saturday there was a heavy rain but the audience were unrelenting and were enjoying the music.

Luckily when Mahmoud Ahmed came on stage the rain stopped. I think it’s his prayer which saved us. It was one of the best performances I watched so far. Many international artistes also were overwhelmed with Mahmoud’s performance.

Yes, the rain disturbed us but things went on smoothly. Amazing performance by Sydney Salmon, Tsedienia Gebremarkos and DJ Marcus Price were also highlights during the night. On Sunday, Morgan Heritage were ready to come on stage and things were going smoothly up to 8:00.  Tsehaye Yohannes, Dawit Tsige and Morgan Heritage were all lined up to perform. What followed was a heavy rain, storm and thunder.  It was interfering with the electric and sound equipment appliances. Since safety was our first issue we unplugged all the equipment and switched off the light until the rain stopped.

After this storm, we could not plug and restart the electric appliances. We could not even announce it; since we did not have a microphone. So our security and staff members went to the sheltering space and explained what was going on. This is a natural occurrence and it was uncontrollable and many of the audiences understood our situation. This year’s event started a week ago with a sound and light engineering workshop and a conference on the prospect of Ethiopia’s culture and creative industry. Apart from the good things, this year's main challenge was to get an approval license from the government. We got the license one week prior to the festival.

This is a renowned festival which happens annually. Why was there a hassle to get a license?

It is not clear to us too. What we know is, we applied early and were waiting patiently. According to the regulation, if one does not have a license, promoting it on various media such as radio, television and newspapers disseminating fliers putting up billboards is not allowed.  So what happened is like in previous years. We could not do promotion aggressively. We waited for more than a month to get approval and, finally, we were forced to do promotion only for a week. This has a massive cost and we sacrificed a lot. In Ethiopia, it is easier to do ten indoor concerts: but we chose to do a huge outdoor festivals in order to develop this sector. This year has passed; so we are asking a collaborative effort from government offices and the city administration. Selam can become one of the biggest festival in Africa. For this festival around 30 people from Sweden, three from Kenya and a few people from Rwanda showed up.

Since it was not promoted aggressively, many people did not hear about this year’s festival. Did it affect the number of audience?

Yes it has. It affected us economically and psychologically. After working so hard we had wanted people to see what we prepared. But in this case, we could not promote it. It was only for three days that we were able to promote it. We were happy with the performance of Mahmoud Ahmed, Dawit Tsige, and Gaël Faye.

Apart from that there were hassles on Sunday regarding the reimbursement of tickets and there were unprofessional answers from staff members at the gate who were handling the tickets. And is there any plan of refunding?

It is also clear in our guideline that we will reimburse tickets if it is caused by our fault. But what happened was a force majeure. Still if they have a valid case they can come and should be reimbursed.

Regarding the issue of unprofessionalism these are volunteers who did not have experience in dealing with these types of issues and we believe this should be corrected. Luckily many of the audiences understood our challenges. This will be improved for the next year and we are designing a technical strategy for unexpected occurrences. We will be having shelters if there is going to be rain and we will also apply a clear communication strategy. This also showed us a major gap in festival preparation management education. So our plan next year is to prepare a course to bridge that gap.

What about in dealing with international artistes?

We have a working experience of more than 20 years and this is the first time we faced cancellation. The problem was created with one artiste and the management. Previously, we dealt with international artistes such as Alpha Blondy. We know how to manage but this was also a wakeup call on how to look into details. We heard some rumors about Yassin Bey’s reputation such as his concert in Kenya but we did not consider the negative issues. This is a lesson on how to deal with similar issues.

Every year the artistes that come are much diversified. Electro, afro-fusion, alternatives, hip-hop, salsa and traditional music are some of the genres. What is the criteria in choosing artistes?

We actually have a Swedish and Ethiopian crew and a leading committee. The leading committee is responsible in recruiting artistes. Since Selam is getting popular many artistes are requesting to come. The problem is that most of the artistes are not known by Ethiopians. In established festivals like the Tanzanian Busara, the artistes send an application. In our case we choose artistes that are suitable for an Ethiopian audience. In other countries, embassies influence decisions by sponsoring an artiste. In our case we do not compromise. If they sponsor us it should be our choice not theirs.

There are also successful commercially viable artistes. Why don’t you bring them or is it because of Selam’s identity or is it because they are expensive?

As Selam we focus on artistes who can pass positive messages. Apart from that, there is the question of money. The renowned artistes request a lot of money and the entrance won’t cover the cost. Most of the artistes actually compromise the price and seem to understand the aim of the festival. It is not only the international artistes, local artistes’ payment is sometimes unattainable.

What about funding?

Cultural funding that come from Europe is decreasing. Europe also has its own crises. Additionally, an event which depends on funding will not be sustainable. We want to limit funds as much as possible and depend on local sponsors. We need long-term sustainable sponsors that believe in our aim. We are established and successful with an international network of artistes. Our biggest achievement is that people are now calling it one of the biggest East African festivals. From its start we decided that the Sweden and the Ethiopian festival should have the same standard, including artistes' bookings and content.

What is the unique challenge related to organizing festivals?

Festivals that are modern are not usual. There are cultural and  religious festivals, which are popular such as Meskel or Epiphany. The festivals that we organize are like European festivals. Festivals are rare in Ethiopian. Some of them actually phase out because there is no support. And in some cases the market is not lucrative. The other challenge is availability of equipment, skilled manpower, suitable outdoor venues and other issues which require fundamental solutions.

The festival industry can be stronger with experts penetrating the market, easy access to equipment and getting access to various venues. This sector needs a huge investment and support. Ethiopia is a country blessed with ancient heritage, culture, music, food and an ancient civilization. What we need is a clear strategy so that the country can have a very good creative industry.