Creative Interpretations

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."

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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

In other I-Fest news, blind Malian husband-and-wife singers Amadou et Mariam have canceled their American tour. According to I-Fest official Rick Mitchell, in this case the INS is not to blame…Given up on the Richmond Strip? Who hasn't? But now's the chance for lovers of live original music to take back the night on our ill-fated "answer" to Sixth Street. Chuy's and KPFT have partnered up to present "Live at Chuy's," a Thursday happy-hour free-music series spotlighting Americana acts. KPFT's Roark Smith will host the shows, starring Darden Smith on April 25, George Devore on May 2 and the South Austin Jug Band (featuring Warren Hood) on May 9. Show coordinator Marsha Milam says the Dos Equis and margaritas will be cheap… Also on April 25 is the Artists Art Car Ball at Hyperia. Mojo Nixon and the Toad Liquors headline the bill, which also includes Starvin Marvin and the Sounds of the Swamp, the Luxurious Panthers and Pretentious Percussion. Also on the evening's program are the Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre (presenting a pagan Hawaiian spectacle not for kids, according to organizer Toni Silva), the Miss Fear and Loathing contest hosted by Chef Bob, a car bash and a screening of Pat Waugh's flick Skate Street. Tickets are $15. CD releases: Alt-country singer Mando Saenz releases Watertown April 19 at Rudyard's, while Press "Best Rock" winner Moses Guest releases its long-awaited self-titled double CD April 20 at the Continental Club. Also on April 20, Donora's Center releases its debut at Fitz's…That same night finds Left Over Crack, the Ballistics, Speed 90, the Guilla-Teens, Ahkmend and the Go Getters splitting the bill at the off-the-club-radar Pasadena punk part-time venue, the Band House. Call 713-462-7277 for more info/directions…For the first time in several years, Rocky Hill is gigging again. The guitarist is today known mainly as "Dusty Hill's brother," but back in the '70s, Rocky was justifiably regarded as one of the best blues guitarists in the world. Hill accompanied Townes Van Zandt on acoustic slide guitar on the singer's slow blues "German Mustard" and also released albums under his own name on Tomato, Virgin and Collectibles. That last album featured guest shots from Albert Collins, Uncle John Turner, Kim Wilson and Tommy Shannon. By the way, if you ask Rocky for a match, he'll say, "I hadn't had one since Elmore James died." Hill played one of his first shows of his comeback last Friday with Tracy Conover at Dan Electro's…In the annals of music and mankind, has a pleasant afternoon ever gone so bad so fast? That's what Racket was wondering at KTRU's annual shindig April 6. Mrs. Racket and he were having quite a time enjoying a few free St. Arnold's while Racket Jr. harvested Spanish moss that had fallen from the live oaks near the track stadium. Fort Worth's Vena Cava played an excellent set of nouveau-honky-tonk-meets-mariachi that put Racket in mind of Calexico, one of his favorite bands. All was right with Racket's world; little did he know that it was soon to stop turning. First the St. Arnold gusher ran dry, and there was no beer to be had at any price. Horrors! Shortly thereafter it was announced that Jad Fair had been in a van accident and canceled its gig. Then Beyondo Bangkok took the stage. Mercifully, Racket's delicate psyche has repressed most of what went on after this distressing duet began to play, though haunting snippets come to him under hypnosis and in awful, twitchy cold-sweat dreams: something about a song sung in a staccato Toni Basil-meets-Liza Minnelli voice exhorting domestic barnyard animals to rise up and throw off their bondage with moos, quacks and cock-a-doodle-doos…Congrats to former Press music editor Anthony Mariani, who is taking over as the arts and entertainment editor at Fort Worth Weekly. According to a press release posted on the alt-weekly trade site, Mariani "initiated the [Press's] first weekly local music column." Bet that's news to former music editors Hobart Rowland, Brad Tyer, Tarbox Kiersted and Michael Corcoran…Last year, Lee Roy Parnell passed along this Lightnin' Hopkins anecdote, and now that the Third Ward bluesman has his own statue, this is as good a time as any to share it. "Rob Verbone was the producer at some session Lightnin' was doing. Rob was just a kid. Lightnin' could have cared less who the producer was, you know, just 'Give me the money, and I'll do the songs'…Rob thought Lightnin' just wasn't paying any attention at all, and he was there scrambling around trying to get everybody miked up… And Lightnin' looks up at him, and kinda pulls his glasses down a little bit and says, ''Scuse me, are you the producer?' And Rob gets on the talkback and says, 'Yes, sir, Mr. Hopkins.' And then Lightnin' says, 'Then could you produce me a bottle of wine?' "

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