10 October, 2002
That Tuba Ain't from Cuba
Why governments should take a laissez-faire approach to artistic trade
p h i l i p s a s s e r
On May 3, 1956, violinist Isaac Stern became the first American artist to perform in the Soviet Union. It was said at the time that every violinist within 500 miles of Moscow was in attendance at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. It was not by chance that the night's program included works by Mozart, Copland, and Szymanowski. Isaac Stern and officials from both countries understood the importance of artistic exchanges between countries otherwise incapable of compromise. The pieces that Stern played on that night came to symbolize, for both nations, the common thread of musical heritage that forms a shared artistic language. If compositions by both American and Russian artists could be heard and reconciled in a single place then, as Stern hoped at the time, maybe there was hope for political reconciliation as well.
Last April the Cuban band, Traje Nuevo, was contacted by Davidson Union Board and was scheduled to play a show in the Duke Family Performance Hall on October 1, 2002 as part of the C. Shaw and Nancy K. Artist Series. By late September of this year, however, it became clear that Traje Nuevo's difficulty entering the US would not be resolved in time for their scheduled performance. The show was thereby cancelled. Quetzal, a popular Latin America group from east L.A., came instead. Davidson again faced international problems when Cuban jazz musician Chucho Valdez could not enter the states for his scheduled performance, October 6, 2002.
Traveling between America and Cuba has never been easy, but in a post-9/11 world, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has made it virtually impossible for artistic and cultural exchanges between the two countries to take place. Cultural exchanges that, if history has taught us anything, are crucial for political rest.
It would be easy and convenient to place the blame for Traje Nuevo's visa problems on the Cuban government. But, as the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) is beginning to discover, the difficulty in bringing artists into America most often lies within our own government.
The consistency with which international artists are prevented from entering the country recently provoked the APAP, which represents everyone from your local coffee-shop cliche to the Rolling Stones, to call a meeting in Texas with the INS and other government agencies. While no long-term solution has been reached, the very nature of the dialogues demonstrates that the appropriate respect for international artists is dangerously low.
Just as a government's inappropriate response to art often signals future (and more frightening) restrictions, a government's increased openness to creative outlets often lends itself as a hopeful sign of increased freedom. That is why, almost invariably, political upheaval is accompanied by, and often initiated by, an artistic one. Over forty years after Isaac Stern sowed the seeds of a cross-cultural artistic community, the collapse of the Berlin Wall inspired the reunion of the East and West Berlin Orchestras' joint performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which amounted to much more cultural significance than some obligation to a social expectation.
The expected performance at Davidson by Traje Nuevo this fall was, of course, not intended or capable of becoming such an event. It is, however, an example of how, if left unchecked, the political control of artistic movement may prophecy the advent of more significant government intervention. The present state of American foreign policy inspires a renewed vigor among those who cherish this dialogue between artists. Artists posses the flexibility to travel and influence in places and in ways that diplomacy never could. By limiting artistic access to this country, therefore, we deny entrance to the very ones who have the capacity to protect us.