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Flute Virtuoso Left Scrambling After Customs Officials Destroy Rare Instruments

Flute Virtuoso Left Scrambling After Customs Officials Destroy Rare Instruments

Almost every one of us has a war story to tell about the horrors of air travel. Missed connections, flights grounded for days due to weather, lost luggage, interminable delays on the tarmac, horrible seatmates — we’ve seen it all.

A Canadian flautist named Boujemaa Razgui can top all your stories of woe. Just before Christmas, he lost the tools of his trade at New York’s JFK airport. Well, he didn’t “lose” them, precisely. Reports say that U.S. Customs destroyed them all — on purpose.

Moroccan-born Boulemaa Razgui is a respected and internationally-known musician. He performs North African and other ancient ethnic music with an eclectic variety of fellow performers. He has collaborated with Beyonce and Shakira, performed with Cirque de Soleil, and is a member of famed early music groups Al Andalus and the Boston Camerata.

To create his particular brand of authentic musical sound, Razgui handcrafts many of his own instruments, sometimes spending two years perfecting each one. The instruments at issue here are 11 end-blown bamboo flutes known as neys and two other flutes called kawalas.

Is U.S. Customs Just Tapdancing or Dont They Know What They Destroyed?

As this story began to go viral in the musical press on New Year’s Eve, the details didn’t clarify. They actually got murkier to the point that now it’s not exactly clear what happened. Reportedly, the situation unfolded something like this:

On December 22, Razgui was headed home from a performance in Madrid to the Boston area, where he now lives. A Canadian citizen, he lives and works in the U.S. on a green card. Just as he’d done on countless previous such international trips, inside his luggage Razgui packed a case containing his 13 handmade neys and kawalas.

Razgui also packed several special reeds of bamboo native to the Marrakesh area of Morocco that he’d purchased there for crafting new flutes.

“I fly with them in and out all the time and this is the first time there has been a problem,” Razgui told the Boston Globe. Unfortunately, on this trip things didn’t go as planned.

The story from U.S. Customs officials is that Razgui didn’t pick up his bag at JFK and process through Customs with it. They say if he’d done so, he’d have been present for their inspection. Razgui, on the other hand, says his bag didn’t arrive on his flight and that he waited for it at the JFK Baggage Claim area for two hours.

He says American Airlines finally advised him to continue on to Boston and the bag would be found and delivered to him at home. When it arrived, the flutes and the reeds were gone.

Oddly, Customs officials say they did not destroy any instruments. Rather, they’ve asserted they destroyed only some “fresh bamboo canes approximately three to four feet long inside of unclaimed baggage arriving on a flight from Madrid, Spain on Sunday December 22, 2013.” These they destroyed, they said, because they were “agricultural products” that could not legally be brought into the country.

Interestingly, the allegation that there were “no instruments” in the bag was the story U.S. Customs presented to NPR. However, they didn’t make the same claim when Foreign Policy.com inquired about what had happened. Are the details shifting to a more favorable story as this story gains traction in the press?

Razgui says the bamboo reeds were dried, not raw, and were legally importable. According to his version of events, they could never be confused with canes of raw bamboo. Nevertheless, U.S. Customs destroyed the canes and has no explanation for where the flutes are. They say they never saw flutes. They saw bamboo. Bad, bad bamboo that they needed to destroy. That’s the story. It’s unsatisfying, to say the least.

One may wonder whether the ethnicity of his name on the luggage tag had any influence on what happened to Razgui’s instruments and his bamboo reeds. Perhaps not, but we’ll never know for sure.

I Make Them With My Own Hands and I Cant Make a Living Without Them

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Razgui told the New York Daily News. “The worst thing I worried about was that someone would sit on [the instrument case], that was the biggest mistake I could imagine.”

Listen to an interview with Razgui about this incident here:

“I have three kids, I make a living with this flute. Now I don’t have them,” Razgui told CNN. “These instruments are priceless to me. I make them with my own hands and I can’t make a living without them,” he told the Globe and Mail.

“I can’t think of an uglier, stupider thing for the U.S. government to do than to deprive this man of the tools of his art and a big piece of his livelihood,” an ensemble director told Norman Lebrecht of Slipped Disc, the music blog that broke this story.

In the immediate aftermath of the loss of his instruments during the Christmas period, Razgui missed a number of holiday performances he’d previously booked. For now, Razgui is trying to meet his upcoming performance obligations with a ney borrowed from one of his students. It’s a far cry from his own meticulously crafted instruments.

Razgui needs to replace the instruments he lost. He is therefore planning another trip to the Middle East to find more of the special bamboo he needs. He says he’ll be coordinating this trip with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure there will be no repeat problems.

Care2 readers, do you believe U.S. Customs should acknowledge its error and compensate Mr. Razgui for the loss of his instruments and the reportedly legal importable reeds he must now replace? If you do, please sign our petition, which we’ll make sure is delivered to the Acting Director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Thomas S. Winkowski.

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Photo credits: Thinkstock

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119 comments

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2:50AM PST on Jan 14, 2014

I feel we don't know the whole story.

Continue the investigation of course as if they do destroy anything they should have photos, records of the situation. Also the airline that lost the bag should be present so are they saying it had no identification?

I don't have a foreign name and I get the notes in my bag often on international travel, like almost every time often.
I also know to put a copy of an ID in my bag (a couple locations) in case those ID tags are missing. I also would not check anything I couldn't afford to lose or have broken.

I'd also have photos of valuables and have them insured, especially if my income depended on it. I also keep all receipts/photos of things I buy outside/inside the US for when customs stops me.
If I have some thing I do have to take with such as a guitar I ask the airline to put "fragile" stickers on it.

Neither party handled this well but I can't take sides.

In general USA IS NOT a good place to travel to or from especially some places like NY-LA etc but the worse I ever had was Hawai where they actually stole new equipment that I just bought for my young son...I had the receipts etc and my insurance payed me but all in all...NEVER TRUST PEOPLE WHO HANDLE YOUR BAGS!

2:24AM PST on Jan 14, 2014

This was an act of crass stupidity.

1:05AM PST on Jan 12, 2014

Thanks for the information.

7:06PM PST on Jan 11, 2014

I don't know the full story and I doubt anyone ever will. Well, anyone who wasn't there destroying things.

I am sure that if surveillance is routine, the tape will never be found.

Petition signed.

1:22PM PST on Jan 11, 2014

Awful. Give some people a little power and they go hog wild.
(No offence to all the wild hogs out there.) :0)

12:38PM PST on Jan 11, 2014

Good comment David Y, I agree absolutely.
A writer friend of mine has a slightly foreign sounding surname and was subjected to endless hassles at several US airports while the friend she was travelling with who has a plain name had no trouble at all. It really began to look like prejudice after the fourth or fifth time....

6:47PM PST on Jan 9, 2014

How terrible! I think he should be compensated for his loss. This is a disgrace to the U.S. Customs. What were they thinking?

1:48PM PST on Jan 9, 2014

Signed the petition.

4:32AM PST on Jan 9, 2014

They have no right to do things like that.

2:02AM PST on Jan 9, 2014

This reminded me of GW Bush as part of his shock n awe campaign bombing that destroyed some priceless, timeless museum artifacts in Iraq. This even enraged some archaeologists in the US if I remember correctly. There are morons everywhere who cannot or does not value artistic, historical, or emotional things. The age old compensation rules in airlines and customs should be changed.

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