President Trump’s revised travel ban would have gone into effect today, had a federal judge in Hawaii not temporarily blocked it at the last minute. While the ban would no longer bar citizens of Iraq from entering the U.S., it would apply to six other predominately Muslim countries: Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Iran. That would effectively keep out some individuals sponsored by American universities and other organizations, including music programs.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs with colleagues in the Silk Road Ensemble using melodies and rhythms that come from many places around the world including North Africa and the Middle East, most notably in the composition "Arabian Waltz".
Some of the musicians who produce those melodies and rhythms for Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble have been invited to the U.S. over the years, but the revised travel ban, just like the old travel ban, would have kept many of them out of the country for at least three months.
In February NPR interviewed a Syrian-born Silk Road Ensemble musician named Kinan Azmeh, who had just debuted a new composition, “The Fence, The Rooftop, and the Distant Sea,” with Yo-Yo Ma in Germany. Azmeh has a Green Card, but in February was stopped from returning to the U.S. due to the President’s original order. Azmeh, a noted clarinetist who lives in Brooklyn, told NPR he was shocked when he tried to go home.
“I continue to believe that making music is an act of freedom, you know, and when I play — even when I'm practicing on my own — I really think this way. Today, I had, actually, this flashback. There's a piece that I've written about 12 years ago, in 2005 while I was detained at JFK Airport, waiting to be questioned. And I wrote this piece called "Airports."
Azmeh told NPR that he claimed both New York and Damascus as home and that people of the world are unified except for having a "different passport.” That was his musical inspiration more than a decade ago.
“And I thought, 'maybe a kind of a protest song can unite these people,'" he said. "And now it's sad to see that this piece is still relevant today, 12 years later.”
His mentor, Yo-Yo Ma — who is preparing for a major concert — did not comment for this story, but reissued an earlier statement saying that the new travel ban would make it "harder for Silkroad to bring together the extraordinary musicians and artists from around the world who are at the heart of our cultural work."
Yo-Yo Ma’s statement went on to read:
“We believe that this exchange confirms and nourishes our shared humanity and permits the kinds of collaborations that generate vibrant communities, spark creative technologies, create meaningful art, produce cures for disease, and — in the long run — make us all safer."
The revised ban, unlike the first one, does not cover green card holders like Azmeh.
A similar issue is affecting foreign musicians in Boston. At the Berklee School of Music, Kurdish students are preparing for a concert titled Mediterranean Women in Action. The performers, Kurdish musical icon Aynur and tenbûr player Cemil Qoçgîrî, are from Turkey, which is not affected by the travel ban, but there are Kurds in the ban from Syria and Iran who would be affected.
In 2006, Berklee students and faculty collaborated on a CD titled "We Are All Connected," an R&B, soul, jazz, pop, world, and gospel collaboration with proceeds that went to assist the people of Darfur, Sudan.
A Boston delegation that included Berklee affiliates traveled to the region to see the human devastation for themselves. Berklee students commented on the perceived irony of Trump trying to bar the people of Darfur — whom many in the U.S. rallied around — from coming to the U.S.
“That just shows how the times aren’t really getting better, kind of going backwards in a way," Camilla Ajeez, a first-year Berklee student said. "We were helping them before and now they wouldn’t even be able to come into our country.”
Rafa Adler from Brazil says he had a lot of friends last semester that were not able to return to the U.S. because of the original travel ban.
"I lost many chances to collaborate with them and experience college with them," he said. "Some of them were jazz musicians, some of them were rock musicians, some of them were metal musicians, there was a rapper.”
Isaiah Carter, a graduate student, said there should be screening at the border but that the Trump travel ban “was the wrong way to go about it, especially for musicians trying to come over here and collaborate. "
"We live in an age where we can access the breadth of musical history and musical collaboration across the world and I think to try to close ourselves off to that is just foolish," Carter said.
The federal judge in Hawaii is planning an expedited hearing on whether to continue blocking Trump’s revised travel ban affecting citizens of six countries, among them musicians.