I called to discuss some good news: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has approved Natch's artist visa petition. I have been in contact with him since last year when I began collaborating with his former group, The Plastic Wave, to bring their music to the stage in Brooklyn at Impossible Music Session 1 in March 2010.
When The Plastic Wave applied for visas to attend the 2009 SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, they faced a nasty Catch-22: the official at the consulate in Dubai denied them on the grounds that they couldn't demonstrate sufficient experience as performing musicians. But because the group had a female lead singer (Maral, who is featured on the band's self-released EP, [RE]action), the regime prohibited them from performing!
Thanks to some lobbying by the League of American Orchestras and other arts organizations, the Department of Homeland Security has streamlined its artist visa application process. Still, it can be prohibitively expensive for many artists. Even working with pro bono legal support from the excellent visa agency Tamizdat, this filing cost some $1550, which was contributed by an anonymous donor. Now, Natch and his colleague Shayan have been approved for P-1 and P-3 visas, respectively.
For Natch and Shayan, as for many other musicians, the greatest difficulties usually await at the consulate where the actual visa must be issued, and additional fees and expenses are unavoidable. In their case, since the United States maintains no consulate in Iran, they must travel to a consulate in a neighboring country for an interview with no guarantee of success. The processing can take months, typically with no indication of the time window for approval. These unpredictable delays, of course, play havoc with plans to book travel and arrangement performance itineraries.
Conditions across Europe are no more favorable for foreign artists from difficult circumstances. Last year, my colleagues at Freemuse, the Copenhagen-based human rights organization for musicians and composers, released a policy paper on artist visa obstacles in Europe. The report calls on national governments to make their procedures more transparent and coherent, particularly as parties to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005), which calls for “encouraging appropriate collaboration between developed and developing countries in the areas, inter alia, of music and film,” and “facilitating wider access to the global market and international distribution networks for [developing countries] cultural activities, goods and services." Neither the United States nor the Khomeinist regime, it should be said, are signatories.
So, even as Natch and I transatlantically share a weekend celebration (I gave up weekends--and weekdays--last year when I quit my day job), the biggest challenges lie in the weeks and perhaps months ahead.
Why undertake the risk and expense to travel across the globe to perform music? Why not do it online? Natch and other underground musicians are relatively free to record their music on home studio software and share the mp3s on Facebook and MySpace. But for many, that is not enough. They long for something more—to engage with audiences in the analog flesh and blood. Even where authoritarian states cannot perfectly control cyberspace, they are masters at controlling the public space—the city parks, cafes, and concert halls where people can meet face to face. Paradoxically, in an age of globalization and online connectivity, live performance takes on a new importance and urgency.
Sometimes it is not enough to be heard and not seen.