World Music Institute’s Robert H. Browning on Cultural Exchange

Cultural exchange under attack. MundoVibes speaks with Robert H. Browning of the World Music Institute.


There´s a vast cultural chill across the United States that is laying waste to the very values the nation was built upon. Using the Orwellian “War on Terror” as its guise, the Bush administration has declared war on virtually everything that makes America America. As citizens are distracted by economic woes, the war in Iraq and terror threats, its civil liberties and rights are being systematically and cunningly dismantled. Under the Bush con, America has become a dark place and the world has every reason to be concerned: fascism has once again reared its ugly head.

For those attuned to cultural exchange and artistic expression, the administration´s policies are having an enormously damaging effect. Whereas the United States has gained the respect of the world for its openness, today under Bush it is known for its restrictive and racist policies.

To those who value the right to experience other cultures, now is a particularly perilous time. Under its new visa policies, the United States is a forbidden land for many musicians, dancers and performers from those nations deemed a terror threat. In May, President Bush signed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act, which requires extra background checks on people from countries deemed to be ”state sponsors of terrorism.” This includes citizens of Cuba, middle Eastern nations, France and anyone with a political perspective contrary to the Bush cons right-wing views.

Cultural exchange is truly at risk in the United States and many arts organizations are feeling the brunt of visa policies that make planning a performance or tour nearly impossible. The current policies for entrance into the U.S. by an artist require months of planning and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for fees. The list of artists who have been unable to perform in the U.S. is long and growing, and includes DJs like France´s Laurent Garnier, Cuban artists like Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Allstars and Middle-Eastern artists such as Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami.

An organization that has served New York City and the U.S. with its mission of cultural exchange is the World Music Institute. As one of the largest promoters of world music, WMI has dealth extensively with the government´s visa policies and felt the chilling effect it is having on culture. Mundovibes spoke recently with its Executive & Artistic Director Robert H. Browning on cultural exchange in this most surreal time.

MundoVibes: How severely impacted have you been in your program by our current administration’s policies?

Robert H. Browning: It’s been tough although not quite as bad as some other people have had. We just had a recent problem with Orquestra Aragon, which is a Cuban band. And we just got them in time two days before the concert. We weren’t actually getting the visas for this—the tour managers were — but it was just phone calls back and forth to our lawyer in L.A. and to various congress people here. And finally it came through, but the biggest problem is that you don’t get any word back from the powers that be. For the most part it seems to be the FBI that’s the biggest problem from what I hear.

MV: And that would come from the top then?

RB: Well this is from our lawyer: the problem is that groups coming from the seven designated “evil axis” countries, so to speak, which includes Cuba have to go through God knows how many different agencies to be passed—literally a dozen agencies for it to pass through security. So, if one of them holds it up for a time, the whole thing gets held up. I mean, they applied for their visas four months ago, got the approval notice three months ago, then went in for their interviews about two months ago and were held up ever since then.

MV: So one never knows? Even at the last minute there can be a cancellation.

RB: Oh, absolutely. We had already sold like 800 tickets.

MV: I lived in Miami and it always seemed like it was very difficult for them to enter this country.

RB: Well, in Miami you unfortunately have the Cuban political lobby, which doesn’t even allow them to go to Miami even when they have been to the rest of the country. That’s more of a problem there.

MV: Did you notice a considerable obstacle that suddenly came up since September 11?

RB: To begin with, the biggest problem was artists canceling because they didn’t want to come at that time, right after September 11. There was already a problem put in place some months before then when the INS decided that they could not longer handle all of the visa requirements in the time allotted. So, we were usually turning around visa approval notices within about 10 to 15 days. And they then told us that from now on it would be 60 days, but within a couple of days they said 90 days and then shortly after that they said indeterminable time. Unless one pays $1,000 additional premium processing fee, and for an organization like us we just can’t afford not to pay the premium processing fee. For smaller groups, like small dance ensembles and music ensembles bringing in artists from abroad, it was kind of impossible for them with a limited budget. But for us it became imperative so we started doing it anyway. But then, of course, last July it became the whole issue of security arrangements where if you came from any one of about 32 countries they would have to go for a check after the approval notice comes and that check could take three months. And in actual fact it’s been taking longer in many cases. We had another cancellation just a few weeks ago with the Beijing Opera, that was meant to be touring all of the U.S. That was cancelled because they were refused their visas by the U.S. consul in Shin Yang. So, the consuls still have a lot of power in determining whether they think people are going to come back to their country or not or whether they think they form some kind of threat.

MV: Would you say that this whole terrorist threat is being used as a political tool.

RB: Well, I think it definitely was in the Cuba situation. It happened that all of these problems arose because of the very recent executions by Castro of the three guys that commandeered the ferry and the jailing of 75 dissidents. I’m quite sure this had an effect. Otherwise, I don’t know if it´s political so much as just plain incompetence. Just beaurocracies that are completely out of hand that just don’t know how to deal with this kind of situation.

MV: In the case of artists from the middle east, are they being singled out.

RB: Oh yeah, there have been a lot of problems. That can take up to three to six months even to get visas for them. And there´s a catch 22 situation because you cannot apply for a visa more than six months in advance.

MV: Do you think that overall impact is just a chilling effect on how you program?

RB: Well, the biggest chilling effect is basically if we bring in someone from abroad, normally you need to get a couple of other gigs to make it worthwhile bringing them in. And what’s happening across the country is people no longer trust booking artists, especially from the middle east, but from many other countries as well in asia. So, I think we’re going to see in the next year or two a lot less people coming from abroad to perform music, theater, in all of the performing arts really. I would say it’ll probably be down by at least 50%.

MV: That’s incredible. So, you would say there’s a tremendous cultural void that’s coming up.

RB: There will be. And that doesn’t apply just for world music, it’s applying to opera and international theater.

MV: Can you site any specific examples, apart from Orchestra Aragon, of just something that is almost ridiculous in terms of great anticipation of a tour and then for some reason it was cancelled.

RB: Well, the Chinese tour—there was no reason for that. That probably was a political thing as well because this is one of three major Beijing opera groups that regularly tour to Europe and other parts of Asia. And, for the consul general to hold it up for so long for a start, and then for him to say ‘these people have not proven that they have anything to come back to’ like family and what not is ridiculous. These are young people mostly, and as the director of one of the Chinatown associations said to me, ‘what do they want? Only young people can do this. Do they want to put me on stage at the age of 58?’ So, it’s really pretty ridiculous. OK, I know there have been defections in the past. But they’re pretty minimal.

And then the other thing that’s happening is that some artists are beginning now to boycott this country because of all the problems. Last year we had an Israeli singer coming in with five artists who were accompanying him who were of Arab descent and they all lived in Paris. And two of them had Moroccan passports and they US consul there insisted that they leave their passports with them for 30 days, which was totally ludicrous. They wouldn’t be able to leave Paris and go to say Germany or Holland or somewhere like that. So, they refused and finally the French artists came over on tourist visas, which is illegal. But it forces people into that kind of situation.

MV: You are a large organization and I’m sure it has an impact on your bottom line.

RB: Well, I think all of the problems involved this year have cost us at least another $30,000, either in increased fees or having to get lawyers or losses incurred by advertising for things that are cancelled. Or renting theaters because we don’t have our own theater. With Orquestra Aragon we would have lost another $25,000 if it hadn’t occurred.

MV: And for a smaller organization that would be…

RB: That would be impossible for smaller organizations. We’re kind of mid-sized in our budget, which is about $2.5 million, so we can just about handle this thing at this time and that’s only because we’ve had a few emergency grants from major foundations here to help us along in these difficult tim es.

MV: Just in general do you sense that the United States is getting increasingly xenophobic with exchange.

RB: Well, it certainly seems like that on the surface. It’s difficult to really know because the media has been so one-sided in this whole thing. In terms of pushing forward the agenda of the government, basically. And the fear factor of anyone being allowed to criticize. The democratic party has just capitulated to the status quo. And it just seems rather ridiculous—the second world war was one thing where obviously there was an absolute threat to the United States. But there was no real threat to the United States per se from Iraq. OK, there´s a terrorist threat but nobody yet has proven that there was any collaboration between the Iraqi government and the al queda or any of the other terrorist networks out there.

MV: And why should the artists have to suffer?

RB: Right. I always have said that one of the worst things that Jimmy Carter ever did during the cold war was to break off cultural relations with the Soviet Union. Because it was one of the few ways that there was some dialogue at least. I just think that at least we have some openings through culture and the problem is not just with artists but there are many scientists being held up, there are many research graduates in medical universities that are being held up. So, it’s not just the arts, a lot of medical research is being threatened.

MV: Do you have actual concert goers that give inflammatory comments on your programs?

RB: People are very tolerant. Right after 9/11 we did a number of concerts including that concert with the Israeli musician and Arab musicians together. A concert of the following day of a Lebanese composer where the audience was about 90% palestinian and lebanese. We have a very tolerant audience and a very supportive audience. And I know that when I’ve asked people to write to their congressman or their senator to try to help ease situations, that many of them have. And right now we feel we need to make a concerted effort because if we don’t things are just going to go merrily along and people will get more and more angry about what’s going on.

MV: It almost seems without the cultural platform or that feedback, if becomes more self-referential and plain ugly.

RB: Organizations such as ourselves are relied upon to bring over artists and to expose Americans. What is happening here is that Americans are being denied their right to see foreign artists and different cultural media. ‘We have a right, this is still a democracy. And I think we all want to maintain an open society here, where not only do we have free speech but we are able to indulge in it and question things and listen to other people’s point of view.

MV: What would you advise any concerned person to do.

RB: I really advise people to get in touch with their congressperson. And really hammer it home that it is important that we speed up the ability for people to get work visas over here. Because without that we’re going to just continue to have these problems.

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