Creative Interpretations

Vindication comes a year after "Agent 307" prevented Mahotella Queens from performing at I-Fest

This Saturday, when South African Zulu mbaqanga singers Mahotella Queens bring their indestructible sounds of Soweto to the stage at the Houston International Festival, I-Fest band booker Susie Criner says she will feel "wonderfully vindicated." That's because Criner booked the Afro-pop superstars for last year's festival, only to see the gig canceled by a California INS agent's creative interpretation of a visa guideline that had been stricken from the books for five years.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service employee in question, identified only as "Agent 307," refused to believe that this clause had been deleted from the guidelines in 1996. "It was just an old clause that this one agent thought still applied to the approval process. Frankly, he was just wrong," says Criner. "That clause just obviously didn't make any sense -- it put too much of an onus on the promoter."

Not to mention too much of an onus on the reading comprehension of Agent 307. Even if the law had still been on the books, his/her interpretation was as creative as Charles Manson's understanding of the White Album. The clause stipulated that the artist had to be "culturally unique." No problem there -- the Queens invented a genre of South African music and were, according to the German-based World Music Expo, the reigning World Music Artists of the Year. But the venue also had to be "culturally unique," and Agent 307 interpreted this to mean "culturally unified." Venues that the Queens could play, according to 307's interpretation, had to be expressly dedicated to South African music -- in other words, all those Zulu, Khoisan and Bantu celebrations that so clog the American festival season.

"It simply came down to great stupidity on the part of an individual INS agent," says Criner. "The agent stated that every venue that the Queens were playing had to be specifically dedicated to the preservation of South African music. Of course, none of the venues they were booked to play -- the International Festival, New Orleans Jazz Fest, the Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette, even the Kennedy Center show -- qualified."

Nothing -- not written appeals from Nelson Mandela and Ted Kennedy, nor the fact that it was to be the Queens' sixth trip to America -- could sway Agent 307. And so the Queens stayed home on the veld. Eventually their record label reapplied through the Texas INS Office, which saw the same documentation that had been presented to Agent 307 and approved the Queens' application in exactly one hour. But it was too late to salvage their Houston gig, not to mention those in New Orleans and Lafayette, though they did make it to their show at the Kennedy Center.

Mahotella Queens booking agent David Gaar estimated that the Queens lost about $60,000 in the fiasco, but as he told New Orleans's Gambit Weekly last year, far more damaging was the blow to their prestige and fame. "It was really devastating to them," he said. "Those profile events were so critical. If the damage wasn't so strong, this whole thing would have been comical."

In the same article, Jonathan Ginsburg, an immigration attorney who helped draft the new laws governing INS regulation of overseas artists performing in America, called Agent 307's misinterpretation and misapplication of the expired clause "a complete error of law" that "should be an embarrassment to the California Service Center."

So take that, California! We may have swindled your state out of billions in the recent bogus-energy crisis, we may be death-penalty fanatics with bazooka racks on our gas-guzzling SUVs, we may be stark-raving conservatives with Bibles in one hand and a bottle of Pearl in the other, but at least our INS agents can read.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

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