Boujemaa Razgui handmade ney flutes destroyed by US customs thugs

If you ever have one of those days where you think things in Canada are getting bad, there’s always the US to show us what bad really looks like. US Customs officers at JFK airport in New York destroyed 11 handcrafted neys (Middle Eastern flutes) belonging to an internationally renowned musician, calling them “agricultural products”.

On , New York-based Canadian musician Boujemaa Razgui took a flight home from Marrakesh, Morocco via Madrid. Details are still sketchy, but as near as I can tell, when he arrived, he was pulled aside by customs officials. According to some accounts (I haven’t yet managed to get any direct confirmation from Razgui yet), he was questioned for hours, during which he was fingerprinted, and photographed. Razgui’s English is not great, and – in his own words – he was upset and unwilling to risk a confrontation with the US authorities. Somewhere in the course of this, his bamboo case of neys vanished. According to Razgui himself, the case contained 11 neys (honestly, I know little about neys, but I do know that it is necessary for a professional player to carry several – one for each key), all made by him, all made in either Canada or the US, along with some material for making more neys (presumably bamboo). Later Razgui got confirmation that they had been classified as “agricultural products” and destroyed.

Photo of neys.

An actual picture of the neys destroyed by US customs to protect America.

Now, before anyone wants to try to defend the idiot customs officers for “just doing their jobs”, here are some more facts.

Boujemaa Razgui is a renowned ney player, and occasional vocalist. He has performed with Beyoncé and Shakira, the Al-Andalus Ensemble, and with Cirque du Soleil. Okay, that stuff may not be relevant to a customs official, but this stuff should be. Boujemaa Razgui is a Canadian, but he has a US green card, and he has lived in New York for many years (his wife and children are US citizens). He has travelled many, many times with his instruments, both within the US, and internationally. Razgui had those same flutes with him when he left New York to go to Marrakesh.

Furthermore, it turns out that bamboo rods are not classified as “agricultural products” if they are incapable of propagation. Here is what the actual US Customs and Border Protection website says about bamboo:

In general, bamboo that is not thoroughly dried and is therefore still capable of propagation is prohibited entry into the United States.

Bamboo that is thoroughly dried and split or cut lengthwise (rendering it incapable of propagation) will be inspected upon entry and released.

Unsplit dried bamboo canes/stakes/poles also are allowed entry into the United States after inspection: however, if the bamboo canes/stakes/poles are intended for garden or nursery use, the shipment must be fumigated (T404-d treatment extended to 24 hours) upon arrival at the U.S. port of entry.

Bamboo furniture, bamboo cloth, and other manufactured products made of bamboo do not require fumigation and will be released upon inspection.

Now I don’t know how neys are made, so I can’t say for sure how dried out they are, but Razgui had those neys for many years (his words). Here’s something else Razgui said:

Each one was carefully and lovingly crafted. Seasoned and oiled, and regularly played upon. With the years, the sound of the ney just grows better and better. I don’t know what I am going to do now….

Seasoned… oiled… kept for many years… how in the motherfreaking shitstalls of hell could these things still be “capable of propagation”? Okay, sure, I didn’t get to inspect the neys while the customs officials did, but what could that have possibly seen while looking at those things that made them say, “gee, it sure looks like if I stick this flute in the ground it will sprout!”

Logo of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency.

Logo of the US Too Fucking Stupid To Tell The Difference Between Musical Instruments And Agricultural Products Agency.

(As an aside, this isn’t the first time music instruments have had an issue with being classified as mere wood. In 2008, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) passed a law making several species of wood illegal to import into the US, or products made of those woods. It is not a bad law, in that it is intended to protect endangered tree species, and punish anyone profiting from their destruction. Problem was that some of these woods had been imported for generations, and – of course – in many cases, had been turned into priceless musical instruments that were now decades old. For example, 1920s Martin guitars were apparently made from a now-banned species of Brazilian hardwood, so according to a mindless reading of the 2008 law, if you entered the US with a 1920s Martin guitar… it would be confiscated and destroyed. Which would serve what purpose? It wouldn’t bring the tree back, it wouldn’t stop the now-dead grandfathers of the current Martin employees from making guitars from that wood 80 years ago, and it would destroy a classic, quality musical instrument. I agree with protecting endangered species and punishing poachers and profiteers… but seriously, come on. Luckily, the USDA finally cleared things up in mid-2013, saying that vintage music instruments would not be seized or destroyed.)

A photograph of a nylon-string acoustic guitar handmade by John Gibbs.

A mugshot of one of my father’s actual handmade guitars, which menaces the US with its Barbadian lime and mahogany wood. Thus far, it has eluded customs officials.

Now this story enrages me as a musician, and irks me personally because my father makes his own guitars. Razgui has to make his own neys because you simply can’t buy them, but my father makes guitars as a hobby, and he’s quite good. One of his flourishes is that he specifically uses Barbadian woods in his guitars (like lime, mahogany, and so on). And he and I have both travelled through the US on several occasions carrying his guitars (and yes, there have been damages on a few occasions). Unlike Razgui, he doesn’t use his own guitars professionally (though other people do), but it would still be a horrible blow to him if one was taken away and destroyed as “agricultural products” by jackbooted authoritarian thugs.

But let’s be clear: as much as this infuriates me as a musician, this was not about music. No, Razgui wasn’t stopped, terrorized, humilated, robbed, and had his artwork and professional materials devalued to little more than fertilizer by uniformed goons because he was a musician.

Let’s call this what it is. Here are the real reasons why this artist was treated this way, and why his artwork – and professional tools – were destroyed:

His name is Boujemaa Razgui, not something like Bill Smith or Johnny America.

He was coming from Morocco, where his roots are.

He is not a US citizen (he is a Canadian citizen).

He sounds foreign.

He looks like this:

A photograph of Boujemaa Razgui - who is of Middle Eastern descent - playing a ney.

Boujemaa Razgui, trafficker of dangerous agricultural products.

That’s why Boujemaa Razgui was stopped by those thugs. That’s why he was treated like a criminal, despite being a legal resident for many years, and a renowned artist. That’s why customs officials were looking for something to justify their suspicious for detaining and searching him.

But I suppose it was worth it, eh Americans? You all feel safer now, don’t you?

Well, except those of you who travel with musical instruments.

And are brown.

Thanks to Norman Lebrecht, of Slipped Disc, for originally breaking this story, and making sure it got spread.

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Boujemaa Razgui handmade ney flutes destroyed by US customs thugs by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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