Phillip Boulding isn't a hothead. Rather, Boulding was raised by two pacifists, university professors who were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In a way, he resembles Kris Kristofferson and has an extremely patient, ultimately sympathetic manner of speech. At 51, Boulding spends his days in Olalla, Wash., with his wife and musical partner Pam, exploring "our creative life, which is nurtured by our home on a beautiful farm nestled against Magic Hill." From that Puget Sound sanctuary, the Bouldings' hand-build harps for customers around the world and teach several times each week at their School of Magical Strings. But, in a Tuesday afternoon e-mail, Phillip Boulding is beside himself: "I had a direct experience with [homeland security] two weeks ago that made me so furious I wanted to bang down the doors of the White House, but I didn't really know where to turn to vent my frustration."
The next day, Boulding continues to vent, albeit politely, explaining that the activist spirit that his parents cultivated in him at a young age has been especially troubled these past few years, stirred by what he terms the "troubling times and decisions" of America.
Two weeks ago in the village of Kent, Wash., on the first day of the annual Canterbury Faire Arts Festival, Boulding was asked to perform an emergency solo set in the stead of scheduled Canadian singer-songwriter Lowry Olafson, who had been stuck at the Canadian border for days.
It wasn't that Olafson or his music was new to America; in fact, Olafson had toured the country several times. And it wasn't that some dubious criminal record rightfully concerned border officials. As it turns out, Olafson--whose heritage is Norwegian, though he is now a Canadian citizen living in British Columbia--was born in Lahore, Pakistan to "very white, Christian parents," one of which happened to be stationed in the country as a United Nations agricultural engineer.
Olafson's inability to cross the Canadian border is indicative of the experience of a growing number of international musicians, many of whom have experienced increasing difficulty in obtaining the proper immigration paperwork in time to tour in the United States. For three years, such restraints have not only limited promoter markets and options, but also stymied the degree to which a majority of the world's musicians--be it a rock band or a West African art ensemble--can find support in America.
Of course, there is no official explanation why Olafson--who toured America only a week after Sept. 11, 2001, and had hoped to promote his new album this time around--was denied entry at the Canadian border. In fact, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is not responsible for offering such reasons to any immigrant or visitor denied entrance.
"It was a 35-day application period for a visa before, and you could add things to your itinerary," explains Olafson, whose application had been in for 102 days before he finally cancelled the Kent gig. "Since this new government has come into America and since 9/11 ... now, it may be up to 150 days. Or you can pay $1000 and have it approved then. But what is that but a cash grab?"
Los Angeles immigration attorney Richard Tashjian believes he knows what "that" is, and he claims that the increase in problem rates--the outright denials or requests for further evidence from immigration officials--for visa applications in the past several years has less to do with Sept. 11 than many would imagine. For Tashjian, the recession that began in the summer of 2001 ushered in a new period of immigration issues.
"There seems to be this sense of competition, almost, in this mindset that there are enough American bands to go on the circuit, so why let in competition. But you'd never get anyone in any official position to admit that," Tashjian claims, later adding that immigration officials consistently argue that the denial rate for artists is extremely low.
Evidence pointing to such economic factors in the recent visa crackdown includes the outright ban on Cubans traveling to America, especially musicians. Little-enforced Reagan-era laws under Title 2, Section 212F of the Immigration and Nationality Act are now employed by the Bush administration to prevent the admission of Cubans into America, Tashjian says.
"That is a purely Bush administration decision under this Section 212F, and it stems from this purely political, staunchly anti-communist stance that's really more against Castro than communism," maintains Tashjian from his Los Angeles office. "For Bush, we can deny visas for individuals from Cuba, because their time here could propagate income into a 'terrorist regime,' which is what Castro's Cuba is considered."
In fact, Sierra Maestra--the vintage-tinged legendary Cuban son band that formed some three decades ago at the University of Havana--has tried in vain to reschedule its first American tour in four years since it was canceled last July. Proper visas were approved for the entire group in the spring of 2003, though the FBI failed to complete proper background checks before the band was scheduled to leave Cuba. An anonymous spokesperson with the band insists that the tour will not happen for a year or more, claiming that the Bush administration's Cuban restrictions are an attempt to placate voters in southern Florida and claim the state's electoral support.
Mamar Kassey--a traditional eight-piece outfit from Niger--was scheduled to tour America from Aug. 26 to Oct. 5, but that tour, which included several prominent festival stops and one night at the Cat's Cradle, was scrapped after only two members were issued the proper visas. Even though plans are now underway for a tour by that pair, music fans across the country feel that the tightened restrictions are limiting their chances to experience some of the best of what the world has to offer.
"As a musician, I find the idea of these restrictions very uncomfortable," says Boulding. "Music and art should be the one place for redemption, for us to share and learn through other cultures. And I know this is just a small symptom of a much larger picture and problem."
Other symptoms of this seemingly systemic American infection--which many refer to as an overt, outrageous case of "hyper-paranoia"--range from the confounding to the trivial and silly.
After an international tour as Bonnie Raitt's bandleader, English-born, New Orleans-based keyboardist Jon Cleary was denied a renewed work visa in order to return to the United States and tour with his Absolute Monster Gentlemen. His entire August tour was scrapped, though he recently returned to the country for a set on Sept. 4 at the Aspen Jazz Fest. Even the quirky Canadian pop band The Unicorns was forced to cancel one of the most important gigs of its early career at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival in March after being "accused of entering the United States with the intent of making money."
Two-time winners of the International Beatlefest in New York City, Backwards--a Beatles tribute outfit that formed in eastern Slovokia in 1996--was denied entry for an American tour earlier this year, due in large part to regional service centers that attempted to stonewall their Wayne County manager, Robert Daniel, each time he inquired about the band's admittance.
"The most frustrating part about it all was how they would discourage me as much as possible when I tried to help," says Daniel during a break on the faux Fab Four's tour, which at long last rolled into Local 506 and Kings this month. "They would pull out these nit-picky items, asking me when one of the band member's mother was born. We weren't trying to get her a visa."
The Polyphonic Spree percussionist Brian Teasley experienced one of the most ludicrous examples of terror-inflected rushes to judgment last month, while returning to his Alabama home via the Dallas Fort-Worth International Airport. After he arrived in Alabama and found that his luggage had not arrived on the same flight, Teasley filed a missing luggage complaint and headed home, only to be surrounded by FBI agents in his driveway. Teasley had packed his Copperphone drum microphone in his suitcase in his flowing white stage robe, and security agents had mistaken it for a pipe bomb. Back in Texas, five airport gates were closed, and Teasley became an instant terror suspect.
"At the end of the day, I was just being hassled by some guys for about five minutes. They made an honest mistake, and the agents I dealt with were very polite," Teasley said a month later from his Alabama living room, packing for a Polyphonic Spree tour that headed for Japan the next day. "It wasn't that big of a deal."
That doesn't mean that Teasley necessarily approves of what he sees as perpetual fear-induced national security measures.
"I just don't want to come down as to what my beliefs are ... but I do think this administration has cultivated a culture of fear, and it's been used for all sorts of ulterior motives," Teasley says. "It serves America to live in that culture of fear. It makes it that much easier for America to say we are the best and to do what we want regardless of the rest of the world's opinion. And that is a very scary, Orwellian [place] to be in right now."