Xenophobia, the Musical

The closing of our cultural borders

I was at the Irvine Barclay Theatre's New World Flamenco Festival some weeks back—and a superfine bunch of stomping, shouting, clapping and string-flailing it was—when, attempting a bit of innocent ha-ha, I asked fest associate producer Sandy Robertson, "Is it hard getting a work visa for guys who clap hands for a living?"

This was not, it turned out, a subject of mirth to Sandy. Her bureaucracy-coping skills had been rubbed raw over months of wrangling with immigration officials and the State Department to assure that the Spaniards—who were U.S. allies the last time anyone checked—would be allowed into our fine land to perform.

While it has never been a cakewalk bringing foreigners—artists, no less—into the country, Sandy told me, "It's far, far harder now after Sept. 11. You have to deal with both the BCIS [like, who knew there's no longer an INS, which was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, where the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services now handles artists' work visas] and then the State Department, and it's become much more expensive and time-consuming. What's worse is the wear and tear on the psyche, not knowing if the artists you've booked will ever be approved.

"I haven't heard anyone in the arts say they're going to stop booking international artists, but a lot of them may be thinking twice now because you very well could book an artist, market the show, sell the tickets and everything else, and then he might not get in," Sandy said. "That's a lot of risk."

Okay, I don't mind flying without scissors, and I could get to like taking my shoes off at airport checkpoints. I hope that, years from now, when terrorist threats are but a distant memory, shoe-removing will still be a tradition, sort of like the seventh-inning stretch at ball games. But it's a bad, bad thing when we're also bringing the steel shutters down on our artistic windows to the world. What's a flamenco troupe going to do, stomp America to death?

Of course, music is subversive in the deepest sense. Whether it's the troubadours of old spreading the ideal of romantic love, Sufi dervishes bringing their listeners to an ecstatic state or Iggy kicking some life into his fellow Michiganites, music and the other arts can shake you loose from your moorings, reordering your mind and how you relate to the world. You've got to cherish the things that open life up for you, and there's nothing like artistic expression from some far-flung land—that's so different, yet so the same in its humanity—to do that for you.

And for the privilege of doing that for us, world artists now have to run a government gauntlet. To get our Spanish friends into the country, the Barclay had to do the already time-consuming application work for the BCIS (which includes submitting documentation from unions and others as to the artists' unique talents and stature), as well as kick in a $1,000-per-act "premium processing" fee, without which applications can vanish into the strata for up to six months. Once an artist was approved by the BCIS, it started all over again with the State Department, for which artists are now required to submit to in-person interviews at the U.S. consulate in their country. In the case of the flamenco fest, that meant 34 folks in the far south of Spain had to hoof it up to Madrid to convince bureaucrats that they were worthy of performing here, with the travel costs further adding to the Barclay's expenses. After which there was no knowing when, or even if, their visas would be approved.

One of the reasons the fest hosted a full complement of performers was the assistance they had from San Francisco-based lawyer Bill Martinez, who, since heading a landmark 1993 lawsuit that helped open the U.S. to Cuban musicians, has been one of the nation's prime attorneys specializing in arts visas. As others have, he maintains that the Bush administration clampdown on artists' visas began long before Sept. 11 (which can partly be attributed to agencies being underfunded, understaffed and overworked) and that it has gotten far worse since then.

"It's really having a chilling effect on free speech," Martinez says. "Now, it's as hard for most artists to get in as it used to be for Cuban artists, and for Cuban and Middle Eastern artists now, it's that much harder." He points to the case of Maraca, Cuba's internationally esteemed jazz flutist. "To avoid any problems, we filed his petition in January, got it approved by Feb. 4, did the interview and everything else in March," Martinez says. That was almost six months ago, Martinez points out, and Maraca "still doesn't have a visa. He's lost 23 of the 25 shows that were planned. We had to engage six congressional offices to try to help us, and he finally got approved to come here yesterday. And this is someone who had toured here 12 times before with never a problem."

The recent Latin Grammys provide even creepier examples. Cuban nominees weren't granted visas to attend the event, and three—including bandleader Juan Formell, whose acclaimed Los Van Van has toured the U.S. repeatedly without incident—were denied entry, Martinez says, by a "presidential proclamation claiming the applicants' presence in the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States."

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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