The sixth annual Sacred Music Festival held Saturday at the New Orleans Healing Center brought together performers from various cultures and religions in the hopes of fostering peace and understanding.
But the members of Golden Patrimony, a group of traditional musicians from Morocco, were forced to cancel their scheduled performance when they were not granted visas to travel to the United States.
The irony of musicians destined for an event meant to promote cross-cultural understanding being denied permission to attend it was not lost on festival director Sallie Ann Glassman.
“It’s just really sad,” Glassman said. “They had planned for a year to do this. They bought special instruments and clothing. They were doing all this on their own dime. They just wanted to come to the festival and share their culture. These guys are not a threat to national security.”
Other international performers were able to travel to the Sacred Music Festival without incident.
Tsering Phuntsok, a Buddhist monk from Nepal, made the trip, as he has several times before. A group of Tibetan Buddhist monks who live in exile in India also traveled to New Orleans.
But Golden Patrimony, practitioners of a popular, trance-inducing form of sacred music called gnawa, has now been turned away two years in a row.
Its members had applied for visas to perform at the 2016 Sacred Music Festival. One band member received a visa, but his bandmates were denied.
“This year, with all the immigration stuff going on, and because they’re all Muslim, we knew to be concerned,” Glassman said.
Sallie Ann Glassman, the prominent New Orleans vodou priestess, and her husband, developer P…
None of the 12 band members had ever visited the United States. They put in their visa applications well in advance but were not granted an interview with an official at the American embassy in Casablanca until March 2, a few days before their scheduled departure. All were denied visas.
The Moroccan musicians had seemed like strong candidates for approval. They have steady jobs and families. They had an invitation letter from the festival. They filled out the proper forms and applied for the correct type of visa.
“There was nothing that we could figure was the problem,” Glassman said.
Not yet ready to give up, she inquired about their case via a contact in U.S. Sen. John Kennedy’s office. She talked with an immigration attorney.
Thinking a smaller group might have a better chance of approval, only six of the 12 musicians reapplied. They paid the $180 application fee again. They took another overnight bus ride from their hometown to Casablanca.
With the flight looming, they requested an expedited hearing, which was finally set for Friday morning. They would miss their originally scheduled flight but could still catch a different, overnight flight to New Orleans and arrive just in time for their scheduled performance on Saturday.
But they were denied again.
Unable to proceed with the journey, the Moroccans wrote a tribute to the Sacred Music Festival in the sand on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and sent a picture of it to Glassman.
“It’s very sweet, and heartbreaking,” she said. “They wished us well.’”
The Sacred Music Festival is not the only festival of late where international performers have run into difficulties. Several acts booked this weekend at the huge South By Southwest music conference in Austin had their visas revoked or denied, or else were turned away at the border.
Members of the rock band Massive Scar Era, which is based in both Vancouver, Canada, and Cairo, Egypt, were told at the Canadian border that they did not have the proper type of visa, National Public Radio reported.
Yussef Dayes, a drummer in the London-based duo Yussef Kamaal and a band called United Vibrations, said his visa was revoked.
The Custom and Border Protection agency does not generally comment on the status of individual travelers, citing privacy concerns. However, a CBP statement released to various media outlets in response to the South By Southwest denials said in part: “Applicants for admission bear the burden of proof to establish that they are clearly eligible to enter the United States. In order to demonstrate that they are admissible, the applicant must overcome ALL grounds of inadmissibility.”
The statement said U.S. immigration law lists “more than 60 grounds of inadmissibility divided into several major categories, including health-related grounds, criminality, security reasons, public charge, labor certification, illegal entrants and immigration violations, documentation requirements, and miscellaneous grounds.”
The members of Golden Patrimony may have been tripped up by one of those “miscellaneous grounds.” Glassman still isn’t sure why.
“We’re trying to figure out what went wrong,” she said.