USA: ‘Fortress America’ denies access to musicians



‘Fortress America’ denies access to musicians

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma leads an impassioned campaign to ease the visa crisis for musicians visiting the ‘Land of the Free’, writes Mondomix

By Daniel Brown

Last month the world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma testified at the US House of Representatives at a hearing on visa challenges in the performing arts. Ever since the present incumbent has occupied the White House in Washington, artists have seen their chances of performing in the United States reduced to interminable waits, humiliations and high cost. At the hearing, Ma summed up the process in four simple words: “Artists lose their dignity.” The Bush era has ushered in a time where musicians have the fingerprints taken, spend days camping outside of US Embassies, or run the risk of missing their concerts because visas can take an average of 168 days to be delivered (in India, for example).

As a result, there were 15 percent fewer foreign artists programmed by American promoters last year. These figures accurately reflect the general fall in visas granted: before September 11th 2001, 8 million were given out annually. It has now dropped to 5 million. Not surprisingly, most of the victims are from developing world countries. However, even Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra was forced to cancel its tour, set for 2007. According to the April 20 issue of Le Monde, the total cost of the visa operation for the 100 members of the orchestra was 65,000 euros.

“Trust is fundamentally at the centre of this discussion,” said Ma in his impassioned plea on April 4th. “Do we trust people to come into this country to do good or not? In any musical ensemble, you have to trust your fellow musician.” The 50 year-old Chinese-American is the artistic director of the multicultural “Silk Road Project”, mainly financed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. He has been on the road for 20 of his 50 years and visa delays have a crippling effect on his work. “Music and travel are constants for me. In my mind they stem from the same fundamentally human sources: an eagerness to explore new territory and a passion for learning.”

Ma believes this passion is shared by a majority of Americans he meets. “In Dallas, audiences leapt to their feet, spurred on not only by the music, but also by the signal the music sent – the overwhelming power of culture to…create trust.” Yo-Yo Ma was joined in his plea on Capitol Hill by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (representing almost 2,000 members), and spokespeople from Microsoft and Ingersoll-Rand. They all denounced the US visa process as stifling US innovation and competitiveness.
“This is about the intersection of culture and commerce and the critical need for access and exchange,” said one witness, trying to use a rationale and vocabulary that could persuade this Republican-run government.

The US visa crisis is also shared by the academic world, tourist agencies and the travel industry. All are submitted to humiliating cross-examinations, uncertain deadlines, high cost and endless logistic demands. While security has become a catch-all phrase that infringes on the freedom of US citizens, it is now depriving them of the much-needed oxygen of culture exchange and visions that could allow them to see beyond their homogenous ‘American dream’.

This text is the editorial of Mondomix in May 2006. Photo and text is republished on with permission from Mondomix, the author and the photographer.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Photo: Gary Otte / AKTC


Mondomix –  May 2006:
‘Fortress America denies access to musicians’

Association of Performing Arts Presenters – 4 April 2006:

Arts Presenters’ Press Release on the hearing

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Freemuse statement

While new anti-terror laws are presently being discussed and implemented in many Western countries, visa and customs regulations are increasingly becoming a serious problem for touring musicians. Freemuse has received complaints and information on how these laws affect musicians in various countries.

Some artists are now choosing not to tour in the US, said Katie Ray of Traffic Control Group, which secures visas and work permits mainly for rock bands, to The Guardian. According to the newspaper, rock as well as classical musicians are refusing to visit the US to work because they are fed up with the process and the expense. “This palaver of getting visas is mind-blowing,” said a representative from on of Britain’s leading symphony orchestras.

As an international organisation Freemuse itself has faced all kinds of problems in bringing people from certain countries – for example Afghanistan, Iran and several African countries – into Europe. The reason for denying or complicating visa procedures may vary, but the result is the same.
At Freemuse we believe it is extremely important that musicians can travel and perform wherever and whenever invited to another country.


The Guardian – 30 March 2006:
‘Trouble and cost of visas halts Halle US tour’

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