Music and Art Versus Customs and Airline Workers

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Painting of stringed instrument by Pieter Claesz

A still life painting by Pieter Claesz (1625) shows a stringed instrument which might today cause problems at customs or even just carrying it onto an aircraft. Image by Pieter Claesz.

Many musicians and artists disagree with the United States Customs and Border Protection agency and airline employees over a potentially far-reaching host of decisions over what makes art, including musical instruments.

According to CNN journalist Felicia Swartz, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents recently confiscated and destroyed 13 flutes belonging to flute virtuoso, Boujemaa Razgui. Customs destroyed the instruments on the grounds that agricultural products made up the instruments.

That’s a pretty broad definition of an instrument’s makeup, when you consider that instrument makers use horsehair for the bow for a violin, viola, cello or bass, and the violin family of instruments are all made from wood (a product of forests from various parts of the world).

Most woodwind instruments use Arundo donax, giant cane, similar to sugar cane for their reeds, and the bags of classic bagpipes are most commonly made from the skins of local animals such as goats, dogs, sheep and cows. Does that mean musicians should avoid traveling?

A History of Misunderstanding the Arts

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have a long history of misunderstanding the value of a work of art or of musical instruments.

As noted in Laurie Adam’s book, Art on Trial, in 1927, an historic court battle challenged the very definition of a work of art, all because U.S. Customs had labeled a sculpture by the Paris sculptor, Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957), as a kitchen utensil and added an import tax of $600 on the item. This amount represented 40% of the original purchase price. As a work of art, Brâncuși’s sculpture would be tax-free. As a kitchen utensil, it required an import tax.

Edward Steichen's 1920 photo

Photographer, Edward Steichen’s 1920 photograph of Brancusi’s studio showing various works that had the potential of raising controversy with U.S. Customs. Image by Edward Steichen.

Prominent American photographer, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), purchased the work, Bird in Space (1923), directly from the artist. The work arrived in the United States for an exhibition at the Brummer Gallery in New York City and then the Arts Club in Chicago.

The actions of US Customs enraged the artist. Other artists were equally distraught. Steichen was furious and he took the U.S. Customs to court in a landmark case that not only argued whether this work by Brâncuși was a work of art, but what art really was.

Importing Musical Instruments

Musicians have a long-standing challenge when travelling to and from the United States. Wooden instruments like guitars, pianos, violins, violas, cellos and double basses face restrictions over endangered woods and ivory. Musicians must carry documentation citing the instrument’s provenance or risk confiscation.

As noted in “Background: the Lacey Act and the Fish & Wildlife Service Raid on Gibson Guitars,” there was a case in 2009, and another in 2011, which saw the Fish and Wildlife Service agents raiding Gibson Guitars’ factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville to seize ebony and rosewood material for guitars and guitar parts.

Gibson’s was under suspected violation of the U.S. Lacey Act, a long-standing anti-trafficking statute prohibiting commerce of illegally-sourced wildlife, plants and wood products.

It’s not just the difficulty of bringing an instrument into a country. As shown by many airline regulations, including Air Canada, airlines also impose unfair restrictions for musicians traveling with their valuable instruments. Musicians must check anything bigger than the size of a guitar, or purchase another ticket (at full price) for the instrument.

Even the instruments that fit the size restrictions for carry on might be subject to airline staff demands to check the instrument. Can you image checking a suitcase full of gold bars with the airline? Or a suitcase full of cash? Well, checking a Stradivarius violin, or any other musical instrument which values in the thousands, perhaps even in the millions of dollars, is like throwing away a fortune because of detrimental conditions in airplane cargo holds.

Boujemaa Razgui

Razgui, a Canadian citizen living in Boston, has traveled the world for the past 26 years, playing his instruments which consist of 11 neys/nays (a Middle Eastern end-blown flute) and 2 kawalas (a Middle Eastern wooden flute). The flutist is internationally well-known and respected. His instruments, some which he made himself in Canada, are his means of supporting himself and his family.

“I have such great memories of these nays,” Razgui told Arts Journal writer Norman Lebrecht, “through the past years from culture to any moment that I remember. Of course I will not hurt anybody with nays. They were my huge art connection with North America and Europe, through churches, synagogues (all of them in Montreal and almost all in Toronto), universities, colleges, theatres, com centres, mosques, all kinds of ceremonies: marriages, helulas, bar Metzvahs, you name it.” 

Razgui’s music is both unique and much sought after. His wide variety of flutes, all personally built by him, were specifically designed to create different ethnic musical genres and time periods. There are fewer than 20 people in all of the United States that perform his style of music on these Middle Eastern instruments. Without his instruments, Razgui’s loss is not just his income, but also his music.

Sigiswald Kuijken with his viola

Sigiswald Kuijken with his viola in the Netherlands in 2008. Image by Kuijken.

Destroying Musical Instruments

On December 22, 2013, Razgui was returning from Marrakesh, Morocco, to Boston, passing through Madrid and New York on flight AA 0095. It is a trip that he has taken many times without incident.

He tried to collect his bags in New York, where authorities told him that they would be waiting for him in Boston. He arrived in Boston to discover his bags empties of his prized instruments as well as the material he had purchased to make new instruments.

What is now being dubbed the “Bamboo Case,” Razgui learned that his musical instruments, made out of bamboo, which, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, cannot be imported if it’s undried or untreated.

However, Razgui made his flutes out of dried, treated bamboo. Not only that, but the musician admitted to multiple trips in and out of the United States with his instruments without incident.

The Scrutiny of Musical Instruments Continues

There is no hard and fast rule regarding musical instruments as carry on or bringing musical instruments through customs. It depends on the time and place – and who is in charge at the time. According to Air Canada’s current regulations, “String instruments (e.g. guitars, violins and violas) can be carried on board as long as they fit in the overhead bin and there is space available in the cabin at time of boarding. In some cases, a seat may also be purchased for these instruments.” 

Airline staff at check-in have the final say, resulting in mischaracterizations of both artistic works and musical instruments. The recent case of Razgui’s flutes is one such example. Authorities deemed the bamboo-made flutes as nothing more than a byproduct of an agricultural material, not suitable for importation.

An agricultural product? A flute is a musical instrument, not an agricultural product, just like Brâncuși’s Bird in Space is a work of art, a sculpture, not a kitchen utensil.

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