Last year was exciting for musicians Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate.
Following the release of their 2012 album Faya they had committed to an intense touring schedule in its support. They saw themselves and their audiences grow in 2014, along with fellow bandmates James Breen and John Railton, playing larger venues and headline festivals across Europe. As the year came to a close the band and their label, Cumbancha, were finalizing plans that had already been in the works since early spring — a North American tour and the recording of a new album.
January 2015 was shaping up to be the kick-off of another very exciting and hectic year. Starting the last week of January, dates were set and venues booked. Rehearsal space and recording studio time rented, everything was in place for both a 12 week northeast leg of an American tour and to recording the sophomore album.
Then the rug was pulled out from underneath them.
Suddenly there was a delay in Kouyate’s visa (a citizen of Guinea- a West African nation that the US has only recently reestablished diplomatic relationships with) – it was delayed without word of why or when the issue would be resolved.
As of February 1, when Driscoll and I met to discuss the cancellation of the first week of tour dates, where the status of the rest of the tour was headed, and the plans for recording the new album, Kouyates’s visa was still hanging in limbo.
The official status reported to the label and the band was “administrative processing” – a title often considered a black hole of bureaucratic silence. The standard policy of the US Embassy is once a visa is listed as administrative processing, they are under no obligation to provide any more information on the progress of that visa for a minimum of 60 working days.
Driscoll’s music label, Cumbancha, specializes in the genre of world music and is accustomed to having to navigate the labyrinths of international red tape. Assigned are designated employees whose expertise is handling all the legal paperwork to prevent their artists from getting snagged in the web of international politics and immigration policies.
“We are so lucky to have the people we do at Cumbancha. People have spent hundreds of hours to try to figure out what has happened and get this fixed as fast as possible for us. A tour like ours can’t be just thrown together. People put their heart and soul into their work so we can live our dream and perform all over the world.On average at least 6 months to a year of preparation takes place to get a tour of this size together.”
Driscoll continued, “In June, Sekou had been approved for a yearlong visa but, when he came through customs, his passport was only given a 3 month stamp. This meant we had to re-apply and for no reason we have been given, it’s been delayed with no answers. We did everything right, filled out all our paperwork, got it in on time and still we are stuck in limbo. The people at Cumbancha have put blood and tears into this trying to get this sorted for us.”
It was clear that this was more than just a paperwork issue, some cancelled shows and cancelled studio time that were worrying Driscoll.
The normally enthusiastic man carried an unusually somber mood.
When asked to elaborate about what this delay meant to him personally, Driscoll stated: “It was disappointing to have to cancel our first few shows; Boston, Vermont, New York City and Malboro, NY. As a band we were excited to play these places and are very sad we had to disappoint our fans. For me, even more so, is that I feel a great sense of responsibility. There are so many people who are counting on us and our tour means income and employment for them. There are booking agents, press agents, people at our label, venue organizers and promoters, etc…all whose work is connected to ours.”
Driscoll said, “Everyone involved in getting this tour together has works so hard, way more work than their paychecks will ever show. They do it out of a love and a passion for the music. They do it so my band and I can do what we love and make music. Not having Sekou here, and not being able to meet the obligations we set out to do is heartbreaking. I don’t want to be letting anyone down, especially the very people that are depending on me.”
His demeanor brightened a bit when discussing his writing with Kouyate:
“The first song I ever wrote with Sekou was ‘Music is my Passport’. That song really means something to us. It’s not just about music helping us communicate through our language barrier (Driscoll does not speak French, nor does Kouyate speak English), this song is that music can truly cross any barrier and bring people together all over the world. That’s all we want to do, unite people with music. I’m really looking forward to getting Sekou here so we can make music together again.”
The sunset on February 1 hung with a cloud of uncertainty around Driscoll and the uncomfortable feeling of having yet another day of waiting ahead of him. The sun rose on Monday morning, February 2, with a severe winter storm burying Syracuse and a final answer on the status of Kouyate’s visa.
It came as text message of three words at 10:40 a.m.:
“Visa got approved!”
Proving that ‘Music is my Passport’ and that music can win over political purgatory, these world-class performers, backed by a strong support network and fans throughout the world, can do what they do best – unite people with music.
Joseph Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate will be touring with their band in North America throughout 2015 and have already started establishing dates for a 2016 tour.
Sekou Kouyate will finally be stateside and will have his first official performance with his collaborator and friend, Joe Driscoll, this Saturday, February 7 at the Lost Horizon in Syracuse, NY.
To get tickets, find out more about the tour and upcoming album; go to the website at http://joeandsekou.com/about-the-project.