Is the U.S. slowly sliding off the musical map of the world? In a word, yes. Newly tightened visa regulations, set up by the government to keep out terrorists, are being used to keep out musicians and performers. The consequences of the new rules suggest that the U.S. is no longer interested in keeping alive an international cultural exchange with the rest of the world, but prefers a path of irrational paranoia and cultural ignorance.
Groups and artists recently denied entry in to the U.S. include: Cuba’s Afro-Cuban All Stars; Desandan, a Cuban-Haitian group; Najwa Gibran, a Palestinian singer from Canada and the Whirling Dervishes from Syria, who had planned to perform at the World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles last September. Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes was denied a visa, even though he was nominated for a Latin Grammy Award.
Iranian musician Hossein Alizadeh obtained a visa to the U.S. only after members of Congress and concert promoters pleaded with officials. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (the former INS) added insult to injury by fingerprinting and photographing Alizadeh upon his arrival. Kayhan Kalhor, a Canadian musician from Iran performing with Alizadeh, angered over being fingerprinted and having his luggage rummaged through has suggested he’s done with performing in the United States.
The trend of denying visas hasn’t been limited to traditional world music groups. Cousteau, a rock band from Great Britian, toured without their Lebanese-born band member and songwriter. Marduk, a black metal band from Sweden, has felt the new regulations retard their planned tour. Even the American-Russian Youth Orchestra faced visa problems.
The worst aspect of this war on culture can be summed up with the incident concerning Yugoslav classical pianist Aleksander Serdar, who was denied a visa because according to the INS he was not “an artist of extraordinary ability or achievement.” The last thing Americans, with open eyes to the world, desire is Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) officers deciding which musicians bear “extraordinary ability or achievement.” Putting aside the fears of some in the State Department that there are musician terrorists out there, are we now subject to the personal tastes of middle-management BCIS officers or bureaucratic fear mongers?
The problem isn’t just a threat against touring artists within the U.S., but will also have serious effects in the recording industry and the world music CDs available in the U.S. Many records labels won’t take the chance on releasing a CD by international musicians without the prospects of a tour to increase sales. For some time now, the U.S. record industry has bombarded with the world with the likes of Britney Spears and Eminem and profited from it, but what if one day, the world just stopped buying what we were peddling? What if the rest of the world said no to American musicians touring overseas? Right now, we’re the ones slamming the door, but what if the rest of the world did the same and slammed their door shut?