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Musicians, Take Note: Your Instrument May Be Contraband

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Musicians, Take Note: Your Instrument May Be Contraband

Music News

Musicians, Take Note: Your Instrument May Be Contraband

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The Obama administration has proposed new rules aimed at protecting African elephants by limiting the trade in ivory. And the proposed regulations are causing a lot of anxiety in the music world. From country to classical, working musicians say the policy would make them think twice about touring abroad. That's because even an instrument with a small piece of ivory inlay could be seized.

Georgia Public Broadcasting's Adam Ragusea has more.

ADAM RAGUSEA, BYLINE: The proposed regulations would place a near-total ban on anything made with ivory moving in and out of the United States. Craig Hoover heads up the Wildlife Trade and Conservation Branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

CRAIG HOOVER: The reason for that is because we have seen - over the past five to 10 years - a dramatic, alarming and unprecedented increase in the slaughter of African elephants to supply the global ivory trade, and populations of both savannah elephants and forest elephants have dropped precipitously.

RAGUSEA: That ban would also affect ivory sales within the country. Antique dealers who trade in ivory that was harvested before international bans went into effect in the '70s are furious. Some old guns have ivory handles; that's got the National Rifle Association upset. And buying that used piano could get a lot more complicated; 52 of those 88 keys used to be made with ivory.


RAGUSEA: But the ban has traveling musicians especially worried. Heather Noonan is vice president of advocacy for the League of American Orchestras.

HEATHER NOONAN: When the term "import" is used on this ban, it doesn't just mean commercial activity. It means bringing instruments into the country, even just for personal use; even if you're simply returning from work internationally with that instrument.

RAGUSEA: Older guitars have ivory inlays, and their strings rest on small bars of ivory at each end.


RAGUSEA: With violins, it's not the instrument itself.

AMY SCHWARTZ MORETTI: This is a Tubbs bow, which is an English maker; and I do believe it has the ivory tip - that you can see there.

RAGUSEA: Violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti directs the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University. She's also a touring chamber musician who regularly jets through customs with her century-old bow.


RAGUSEA: There's just a tiny sliver of ivory clamping the bow hairs onto the wood. These days, it's made with plastic. But Moretti says all the great bows were manufactured in an age when ivory came standard.


MORETTI: Everyone knows about Stradivari violins. And a bow, to a player, is almost equally as important as the violin.

RAGUSEA: Moretti is unnerved at the prospect of having her bow seized while traveling to and from gigs. And she's not alone. Foreign musicians commenting in online communities for orchestra players are threatening to boycott U.S. performances. Even country star Vince Gill has expressed reservations about touring abroad with his collection of antique guitars and mandolins.


VINCE GILL: (Singing) I want to hear that high, lonesome sound...

RAGUSEA: The new federal rules do offer an exemption for old instruments but to get the necessary paperwork, you have to prove you bought the thing before 1976. I asked the Fish and Wildlife Service's Craig Hoover, isn't the relevant factor when the instrument was made rather than when it was purchased? Here's how he answered.

HOOVER: We had a long-term investigation in Philadelphia, where we ended up seizing more than 1 ton of African elephant ivory that had been smuggled into the country, and that ivory was pretty much all disguised to look like antique ivory. So differentiating old from new is not an easy thing, from an enforcement standpoint; which is why we're really looking to narrow down what we allow to come into the country.

RAGUSEA: The American Federation of Musicians is pushing for some kind of musical instrument passport the government could issue, verifying that an instrument is truly antique. Hoover says the Obama administration hopes to work with musicians on refining the rules before they go into effect in June. But he says regulations are going to have to be tight, to give future generations a chance at seeing an elephant outside a zoo.

For NPR News, I'm Adam Ragusea in Macon, Ga.


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