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Homeland Security Rules Snarl Musicians’ Schedules

Tuesday January 27, 2004

Berkeley flamenco aficionados anxiously anticipating last weekend’s dual performances by renowned guitarist Paco de Lucia found out they’re going to have to wait until March for rescheduled shows. 

The reason? The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) denied de Lucia and his troupe entry visas . 

The world’s most famous flamenco guitarist, de Lucia had to reschedule several performances on his upcoming U.S. tour—including two at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall—when DHS flagged his Cuban bass guitarist, Alain Rodriguez, for an additional security check.  

That action grounded the rest of the nine-member band even after approval from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Department (formerly known as Immigration and Naturalization Services) and the American consulate in Madrid. 

Canceled tour dates have been rescheduled and event promoters have scrambled to make sure that the group will indeed receive visas. Unfortunately, they say, there’s been no direct communication with the Department of Homeland Security and the going has been slow. 

A spokesperson for DHS said privacy laws may be at fault, because the agency can’t release information about individuals and their visa applications to third parties.  

The cancellation isn’t a one-time phenomenon for the performing world, neither in Berkeley nor across the country. According to Scott Southard, director of International Music Network, DHS checks have been forced cancellations and delays of hundreds of concerts across the country since 9/11, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars for promoters.  

Southard, who represents the top four most popular groups from Cuba—including the Afro-Cuban All Stars, the Buena Vista Social Club, renowned jazz pianist Chucho Valdez and singer Cecilia Cruz, along with other popular groups around the world—has canceled or rescheduled over 200 shows since the Department of Homeland Security was created.  

He said 50-60 groups are denied entry each year, and other groups refuse to come because they won’t deal with the hassle of applying. 

“I’ve calculated the total economic value in ticket sales and other revenue lost and it’s around $10 million,” said Southard. And that’s just from the show’s he’s promoted. 

“My agency only represents a small number of artists, the numbers easily go into the tens of millions of dollars since the founding of the Department of Homeland Security.” 

Chucho Valdez, a Southard client who is an iconic figure in the American Jazz scene, has been denied a visa three times, he said. One denial came when he wanted to attend the Latin Grammy Awards, where he was up for an award. Valdez won, but couldn’t claim his prize in person. 

Lucia’s bassist, who carries a Cuban passport but is a legal resident of Spain, has been stopped multiple times. He was denied last year when traveling with Cecilia Cruz, an ardent anti-Castroist. 

“We know what side of the political spectrum he resides on,” said Southard. Yet he still can’t get in. 

Artists repeatedly denied entry come from countries high on Homeland Security’s terrorist country list, including Cuba, several countries in the Middle East, and North Korea. 

Britian’s Guardian newspaper reported Monday that five members of a Church of England girls’ boarding school were branded potential illegal immigrants and banned from a U.S. tour that included a concert at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. School headmistress Mary Steel called the refusal “barmy” and lodged a protest with American ambassador William S. Farish.  

Cal Performances, the agency which promotes shows at Zellerbach Hall, recently had a close call with the Masters of Persian Classical Music—again because one person was flagged. 

“I don’t know if the Department of Homeland Security knows that affect this process if having on business,” said Hollis Ashby, associate director of Cal Performances. 

She says that de Lucia’s cancellation forced her organization—which has a budget separate from the university’s—to hire a half-dozen people for two days to call everyone who had tickets to the sold-out shows. Still more expense went into rescheduling the shows, which are now set to take place March 4 and 5. 

Ashby said the lack of recourse is especially frustrating. Because DHS won’t respond to their requests, they can only communicate through elected representatives. Ashby says she plans to contact Rep. Barbara Lee with her concerns. 

Southard said the only way his office receives information is when the State Department—specifically the Cuban desk—intervenes. Thus far, he said, the process has been slow but he credits the State Department with being helpful. 

Both Southard and Ashby say they’re frustrated with the process but resolved to cope, and if they have to start working six months earlier to ensure artists will be granted visas, so be it. They hope that, in return, the results are predictable. 

“We’re not going to let the Department of Homeland Security hold us back in doing the programs we do so well,” said Ashby.