My wife pointed out recently that, in practical terms, the blitzkrieg ascension of Donald Trump had yet to directly affect her daily life in any appreciable way. (Unsurprising disclosure: We both vehemently oppose Trump and his fellow travelers.) I stopped and thought about whether the same was true of me, and had to admit that nothing much has changed in my work and home life up to this point. Then it hit me that yes, one of Trump’s outrageous obsessions had indeed put me and several close associates under considerable stress earlier this year – and, oddly enough, in the context of my musical life.
In a previous blog, I wrote of my deeply inspiring experiences in Mexico City last year, when I traveled to that country with my band Moraine to play a music festival. On that trip we were shown exceptionally gracious hospitality by a group of brilliant, internationally renowned Mexican musicians. At the time, it occurred to me that I had the means to reciprocate their warm welcome by inviting them to play as featured artists in the annual music festival I co-organize in Seattle. I extended an invitation to this summer’s edition, and the musicians gratefully accepted; all that remained was to work out travel logistics, a reasonably simple matter – or so I thought at the time.
What I failed to anticipate back then was the shocking election of Trump, with his vicious vendetta against Mexicans and foreigners in general and his crazed border-sealing schemes. It wasn’t long after he took office that disturbing stories began to appear in my local press about foreign musicians being shaken down and refused entry at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The most chilling was an account of an Italian rock band who’d been handcuffed and detained overnight in a jail cell at SeaTac and then deported back to Italy, all for the crime of attempting to play an invitational – and explicitly unpaid – showcase concert at South by Southwest. Shortly after, it was reported that a group of African musicians had received similar treatment at SeaTac. Elsewhere, members of a high-profile British jazz band were likewise barred from performing at SXSW; revealingly, the only ones denied visas were those with Muslim-sounding names. And no less a personage than British guitarist John McLaughlin, one of the greatest musicians on the planet, announced that his next U.S. tour would be his last due to the onerous, ever-multiplying hassles of obtaining a U.S. work permit for a foreign artist.
Whenever an international artist expresses interest in playing our festival, the first thing we tell them is that it’s wholly their responsibility to negotiate entry into the country, and what the risks are. What we can offer is in-kind assistance with fares and lodgings; beyond that, they’re on their own.
Granted, U.S. policy has always barred foreign musicians from playing for pay without the required work visa, but in practice officials usually looked the other way in the case of less prominent players whose profits, if any, would be negligible. Clearly, that’s not the way the new administration rolls. And here I had not only invited Mexicans – Mexicans – to perform in Seattle, but also a trio of distinguished Swiss jazz musicians. It goes without saying that our small, financially strapped festival did not have the wherewithal to sponsor artist visas, which add up to thousands of dollars in fees per applicant.
The Swiss musicians were so spooked by Trump that they insisted that I not use their real names in any publicity. In the event, they entered the country without incident, no doubt because they carried few instruments, and enjoyed a successful grassroots tour. But I couldn’t expect such a rosy outcome with our Mexican guests, laden as they’d be with sizable custom-made instruments. Increasingly fearful on their behalf, I offered to eat the cost of their air tickets to forestall their getting caught up in an ugly situation with a likelihood that they’d never be able to perform in the States again (and these are guys who’d previously played the Kennedy Center).
I was just about to call the whole thing off when the Mexican musicians informed me that they’d scored another gig just days before our festival in nearby Vancouver, British Columbia, where of course they were welcomed with open arms. That forestalled a likely confrontation at SeaTac, but there was still the serious business of getting them across the Canadian border with all of their equipment. The solution we hit upon was to have one of our guys drive to Canada, pick up the band’s equipment, and drive it back to Seattle himself; he did this successfully, but not without getting harangued by a border agent about transporting others’ baggage. A few days later, the band’s Canadian host drove them across the border sans instruments. At the checkpoint, the musicians were separated, taken to a police building, fingerprinted, and interrogated for a half-hour each, during which it came out that the border agents had discovered that they were prominent musicians. In the end, they were allowed to pass – completely legally – and their festival performance came off splendidly, despite our having to conceal the band’s identity in our promotional materials, and with more than a few additional gray hairs on my part. One thing’s for certain: I will not risk inviting other international musicians to this country as long as this “president” remains in office. Slamming our doors in the faces of international creative artists impoverishes us culturally and diminishes our stature in the world. It’s America’s loss – “sad.”
Weirdly, when flying out of Mexico City the previous year, my flight was delayed for a couple of hours at the airport by the arrival of – you guessed it – Donald Trump.
Dennis Rea is the author of the Blue Ear Books title Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan.