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Musicians, Take Note: Your Instrument May Be Contraband

Antique bows were often made with a small piece of ivory that clamps the bow hairs onto the wood.
Courtesy of the artist
Antique bows were often made with a small piece of ivory that clamps the bow hairs onto the wood.

New Obama administration rules aimed at protecting African elephants are causing widespread anxiety in the music world. From country to classical, working musicians say the policy will make them think twice about touring abroad.

The proposed regulations would place a near-total ban on anything made with ivory moving in and out of the U.S.

Says Craig Hoover, who heads up the Wildlife Trade and Conservation Branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: "The reason for that is ... 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."

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, and 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.

But the ban has traveling musicians especially worried.

"When the term 'import' is used on this ban, it doesn't just mean commercial activity," says Heather Noonan, vice president of advocacy for the League of American Orchestras. "It means bringing instruments into the country, even just for personal use, and even if you're simply returning from work internationally with that instrument."

Older guitars have ivory inlays, and their strings rest on small bars of ivory on each end. And with stringed instruments, it's not the instrument itself but the bow.

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.

On her bow, and many like it, 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 of the great bows were manufactured in an age when ivory came standard.

"Everyone knows about Stradivari violins," Moretti says, "and a bow, to a player, is almost equally as important as the violin."

Moretti says she's 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.

The new federal rules do offer an exemption for old instruments, and to get the necessary paperwork, you have to prove you purchased the instrument before 1976. However, the Fish & Wildlife Service's Hoover says that it's often not easy to differentiate between old and new.

"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."

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.

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Adam Ragusea

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