Friday, January 3, 2014

Customs Destroy Musician's Flutes

This story is a few days old, but somehow I missed it. Norman Lebrecht had the news here and here. This is from the Wikipedia article on the nay flute (also spelled "ney"):
The ney (Persianنی/نای‎; TurkishneyAzerbaijanineyArabicناي‎; also nainyenaygagri tuiduk, or karghy tuidukKurdishShimshalUzbeknay), or blur in Kurmanji, is an end-blown flute that figures prominently in Middle Eastern music. In some of these musical traditions, it is the only wind instrument used. The ney has been played continuously for 4,500–5,000 years, making it one of the oldest musical instruments still in use.
"The Persian ney consists of a hollow cylinder with finger-holes. Sometimes a brass or plastic mouthpiece is placed at the top to protect the wood from damage, but this plays no role in the sound production."[1] The ney consists of a piece of hollow cane or reed with five or six finger holes and one thumb hole. Modern neys may be made instead of metal or plastic tubing. The pitch of the ney varies depending on the region and the finger arrangement. A highly skilled ney player can reach more than three octaves...
 The story has made it into the mainstream press via the magazine Foreign Policy:
U.S. customs officials last week destroyed 11 rare flutes by a respected Canadian musician who was returning home via New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. But the agency isn't apologizing for the incident -- it says the flutes were an ecological threat.
Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection identified the instruments owned by flute virtuoso Boujemaa Razgui as agricultural products that risked introducing "exotic plant pathogens" in to the United States, a customs official tells Foreign Policy.  As a result, officials destroyed every single flute without contacting Razgui in an incident that makes your holiday airport delays trivial by comparison.

Don't people fly in and out of the US all the time with bamboo flutes like shakuhachis and pan pipes? Are all Japanese flute players and Peruvian folk bands now playing "contraband" instruments? Or was this just the vindictive act of one music-hater? If this is a real regulation, will it be applied consistently? Or, if not, will there be compensation and accountability?

Those are the questions, but I doubt we will receive any answers other than this statement, reported in the Foreign Policy article:
"CBP is responsible for detecting and preventing the entry into the country of plant pests and exotic foreign animal diseases that could harm America's agricultural resources," said an official, after being asked if the agency would issue an apology. "The fresh bamboo canes were seized and destroyed in accordance with established protocols to prevent the introduction of plant pathogens into the United States."
So SWAT teams should be spreading out across the country hunting down all those other bamboo flutes? I guess they will be arresting Zamfir and destroying his flutes any day now. Here he is with "The Lonely Shepherd" used on the soundtrack for Kill Bill, Vol. 1:

It is hard to believe the outrageous things that are being done to musicians by customs officers these days--not just in the US, but also in Europe, particularly Germany, where they are fond of holding violins hostage until hundreds of thousands of dollars in "tax" are paid.

All I know is that I would never under any circumstances fly into or through the US with my guitar. Customs officers have always been a bit awkward to deal with, but lately it seems they have become drunk with power.

UPDATE: Just a little note about how musicians feel about their instruments. The connection is an intense and intimate one. I have played the same guitar, on a daily basis, for the last thirty years. I have been with the same guitar through one marriage and eight different girlfriends. It is probably the most constant thing in my life. Every time I close the lid on the case, I close at least one latch because I once saw a guitarist pick up his case when it was open and the guitar fell out and was damaged. I never hold the guitar on my lap, soundboard up, while I am drinking tea or coffee or holding a tuning fork. I once saw a student drop a tuning fork onto the soundboard, which again, damaged the instrument. When I was living in Montréal, walking outside in the winter, if I slipped on the ice and fell, I would try and fall so that they guitar fell on me and not me on the guitar.

Are you getting the idea? To a serious musician his instrument(s) are very precious indeed and to be protected from harm the way you would protect your child. This is why stories like the one above provoke such deep outrage.


Rickard Dahl said...

It's pretty ridiculous. To avoid all spreading of alien species all travel between different countries would need to stop. Alien species spread through all sorts of transportation means including cargo ships. Besides what can a few flutes out of a wooden material do to harm the ecology. It's not like it's live plants. And to destroy them without even asking, without taking into consideration that it's rare flutes, in the property of an owner who probably paid a fair amount of money is just outrageous. Couldn't they just keep it somewhere safe if they were so worried about the ecology and let the owner pick them up for travel to another country where they aren't seen as an ecological threat? Besides, it's USA we're talking about, the country that so vividly introduces genetically modified plants, which unlike musical instruments pose a real danger to the environment. GMO plants can spread to nature and cause alot of damage. Besides, it's probably a danger to people eating it too (various new health hazards with GMO will probably uncover if they already haven't). Like someone I know said: Food can be one of the worst poisons because we consume it everyday.

Rickard Dahl said...

Besides, as you said, there's the irreplacable bond with the instruments. Something that can't be compensated with money.

Bryan Townsend said...

You said it!