U.S. customs officials last week destroyed 11 rare flutes by a respected Canadian musician who was returning home via New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. But the agency isn’t apologizing for the incident — it says the flutes were an ecological threat.
Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection identified the instruments owned by flute virtuoso Boujemaa Razgui as agricultural products that risked introducing "exotic plant pathogens" in to the United States, a customs official tells Foreign Policy. As a result, officials destroyed every single flute without contacting Razgui in an incident that makes your holiday airport delays trivial by comparison.
Razgui said there are around 15 people in the U.S. with such flutes, which means acquiring one ahead of his upcoming performances in February may be impossible. "I’m not sure what to do," Razgui told The Boston Globe.
"They said this is an agriculture item," Razgui continued. "I fly with them in and out all the time and this is the first time there has been a problem. This is my life … This is horrible."
Razgui’s mishap was first reported by the music blog Slipped Disc on Tuesday before jumping to the front page of the massive link-sharing site Reddit, which nearly melted the small blog‘s servers according to a follow-up post. Though neither the blog nor The Globe received a response from U.S. Customs on the issue, a New York-based CBP official tells us the agency followed standard protocol.
"CBP is responsible for detecting and preventing the entry into the country of plant pests and exotic foreign animal diseases that could harm America’s agricultural resources," said an official, after being asked if the agency would issue an apology. "The fresh bamboo canes were seized and destroyed in accordance with established protocols to prevent the introduction of plant pathogens into the United States."
Razgui, who has worked with numerous U.S. ensembles and performs regularly with the Boston Camerata, said he hand-crafted each instrument with difficult-to-find reeds. "Nobody talked to me. They said I have to write a letter to the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.," he told The Globe.
The CBP official said Razgui’s luggage was unclaimed and added that "fresh bamboo is prohibited from entering the United States to prevent the introduction of exotic plant pathogens."
Update: In an e-mail exchange with NPR Music, a Customs official says no musical instruments were involved in the CPB’s actions — a claim not offered to FP. The story indicates that fresh bamboo was found in the luggage separate from Razgui’s 11 flutes. However, when American Airlines eventually delivered Razgui’s luggage, it did not contain the flutes. If both claims are true, it remains a mystery as to what actually happened to the flutes and why they didn’t show up in his luggage.