Xenophobia, the Musical

The closing of our cultural borders

So the administration won't check the flood of uninspected cargo containers coming into the country, but it will stop a Cuban bassist? Remember, also, that this is the administration opposed to pollution controls or even anti-terrorist precautions that might prove costly to business, yet now it's ratcheting up the cost of the arts.

"Previously, the visa process was a negligible part of the budget," says Doug Rankin, president of the Barclay. "For this year's flamenco festival, it was at least 10 percent of the cost—well more than $30,000 that wasn't even in the budget because there was no expecting these new changes or what they would cost. Since we were past the point of no return, all we could do was keep on going."

The arts are already being battered, given government funding cuts and the hosing everyone is getting in this economy, and these new costs and uncertainties don't help.

"But just because something becomes more difficult, does that mean you acquiesce? I don't think so," Rankin said. "My experience from Day One at the Barclay is that this is what people yearn for, that despite what's been said about this county, people will turn out for eclectic programming. Americans have always been open to world music, limited only by how open our borders have been to it. There's a long tradition of cultural exchange, and I think that's more important now than ever."

Amen to that. In the days ahead, look for the Barclay to be bringing us Siberian and West African performers.

I was thinking a lot about cultural exchange over the Labor Day weekend at the Bumbershoot Fest in Seattle. If you haven't been, it's like a county fair for the modern world, where this year there were headliners such as R.E.M. and Bonnie Raitt, but also dance, poetry, art, buskers, hip-hop, break-dancing, gospel, 'zine workshops, a film fest and plenty of other stuff, including such edgy international acts as Mexico City's Kinky.

Then there was Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Twenty years ago, if I'd tried to imagine what the music of the 21st Century might sound like, it couldn't have been as good as what the Santa Ana-born saxman and his band are coming up with now. Their music has grooves deeper than the Marianas Trench, while flying as free as bop (not to mention also pulling off a supercharged "Manic Depression" there in Jimi's hometown), and Denson's tunes from their current The Bridge album sound like an inspired pairing of Darius Milhaud and Fela Kuti.

Tiny Universe's Afro-beat grooves prove the give and take of cultural exchange as well as anything: in the mid-1960s, Fela updated Nigerian hi-life music with James Brown-influenced grooves, coming up with Afro-beat, which bore even more of a western stamp after Fela lived and gigged in LA in the late '60s. Once back in Nigeria, he was soon being called "the African James Brown." Then Brown, who'd already revolutionized American music in 1965 with "Out of Sight" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," toured Africa in 1971 and had his head turned around by Fela's music (as did band members Bootsy Collins and other future P-Funksters). Brown's subsequent music bore that African influence, and the world became a better place, at least at his shows.

As Denson's music promises, there are still new voyages to be made between cultures. Previous American administrations have realized the virtues of such an exchange, sending cultural ambassadors such as Louis Armstrong and B.B. King abroad and welcoming foreign acts to the States. It's cheaper than an exchange of missiles.

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