United Airlines only broke one of Dave Carroll’s guitars and got heaps of bad publicity for it. It couldn’t get worse than wrecking an expensive instrument belonging to a working musician, could it? How about destroying thirteen hand-carved instruments belonging to a professional musician? That’s what U.S. Customs allegedly did by mistake a few weeks ago to Boujemaa Razgui, a musician who plays two different types of Middle Eastern reed flute.
Yes, by “reed flutes” we mean “flutes made from dried reeds.” The confusion came from rules that ban fresh agricultural products in order to stop the spread of plant diseases. The musician apparently was carrying new reeds home to Boston to make new flutes, and had checked them with his finished flutes in his baggage. His baggage was missing when he came home to Boston on December 22nd, but all air travelers know that happens sometimes. It was when the airline delivered his bags to his house the next day, bereft of flutes, that he knew something was wrong.
He eventually learned that the instruments and reeds that he was bringing home from a trip to the Middle East via Spain had been seized by U.S. Customs at John F. Kennedy airport in New York.
To replace the flutes, Razgui says that he’ll have to gather more reeds: they only grow in a few countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Spain, and his native Morocco. He claims that the reeds he was carrying in his checked baggage were already dried. Also, he says that the flutes aren’t made from bamboo.
Customs disagrees with his account, claiming that what it destroyed were “fresh green bamboo canes.” Not flutes. Not reeds. Speaking to Gothamist, a spokesperson insisted, “There were no instruments destroyed according to our people.” Destroying the non-approved “bamboo” was necessary in order to keep “exotic plant pathogens” out of the country.