Monday, June 23, 2008

Visa problems spoil Béla's African workshop

Some of the most immediate performances in Telluride took place far from the main stage. Living up to its mission to advance the form, this festival every year conducts a number of clinics and competitions to discover new talent, showcase new ideas and pass on skills to a new generation. For example, Saturday morning saw Michael Harnick and Bobby Wintringham expound upon the fine points of instrument construction with the precision of any exacting craftsmen.

For the next event, Bela Fleck was to appear with Senegalese kora master Boubacar Diabete. Fleck, a demanding scholar of music, has over the last several years become increasingly interested in the African origins of American roots music, conducting projects with the likes of Diebete and Senegalese superstar of Afropop, Baaba Maal. Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary of his travels and collaborations in Africa, is being screened at the festival. More to follow.

But it was not to be. Diabete, like so many African musicians over the last several years, was kept out of the United States by mysterious visa and passport complications. Such complications have always plagued African musicians. But they have skyrocketed after 9/11. Officially-condoned bigotry toward Muslims convinced many musicians they were not wanted here. Even prominent and well-known African musicians such as Salif Keita and Kanda Bongo Man have been flatly denied permission to enter the United States or seen their efforts grow vastly more complicated and expensive. Others, such as Maal, began to travel with only a small entourage rather than the complete stage show they had offered.

Certainly one element of these troubles was tumultuous internal politics of many African nations, such as the protracted civil war in Zaire. (Which is why we hardly ever see any soukous in the United States anymore.) But a far larger factor has been the antipathy of the current regime in Washington toward black artists with a Muslim heritage. Never a fan of cultural diversity, the Bush administration has since 9/11 has in its actions and with its surrogates shown a suspicion and even hostility towards of cultural influences that are not Christian, white, and allied with its geopolitical purposes.

The main one of these purpose, of course, has been to whip up war fever towards Islamic societies. Cultural exchange and the understanding it brings might make it hard to demonize them, and make us less likely to accept lies about weapons of mass destruction.

Thus the events of the harsh world outside penetrate even this sylvan bubble of privilege for those who live here and good times for those of us who visit. But there may be a silver lining. On the walk from Elks Park stage to the festival grounds, political volunteers were signing up new voter registrations. And they were not doing so for the party currently in the White House.

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