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U.S. Ivory Ban Spawns Dilemma For Music Industry

Three members of Mariachi Frontera pose in front of a neighbor's home in Ojinaga, Chihuahua. Band leader Raymondo Sevilla, on the left, applauds the U.S. stand on ivory despite any inconvenience it's causing. (Lorne Matalon)

In June the United States will begin enforcing a ban on ivory from the tusks of African and Asian elephants. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls what’s happening right now to elephants “an unprecedented slaughter.”

But the ban has forced many professional musicians to make a choice—perform without their favorite instruments or forgo work that takes them across the U.S. border.

I met up with the band called Mariachi Frontera as band members rehearsed in front of neighbors on Calle Allende in Ojinaga, a Mexican town on the Rio Grande beside Presidio, Texas. The band was preparing to to record an album it had initially planned to lay down across the border in the arts meccaof Marfa, Texas.

Band leader Raymondo Sevilla said ivory in his violin bows creates a sound that can’t be replicated. So he’s scrapped plans to record the latest album in Texas because he doesn’t want to risk getting his precious instruments confiscated. He’ll still perform in the U.S. but only with non-ivory instruments. Despite the inconvenience, he applauds the U.S. taking a stand.

“This (the United States) is a country that is doing what is right,” he said in Spanish.

“They (the elephants) are so intelligent, such amazing animals that they should not have to die for to help make music,” he said.

Gory Smelley is a recording engineer in Marfa, Texas. Had Mariachi Frontera recorded their album in the U.S., it would have been in Marfa, Texas and they’d almost certainly have worked with him.

“I kind of subscribe to the old adage that it’s the craftsman not the tool, he says.”

Musicians face the same dilemma on the northern border.

25-year-old double bassist Taddes Korris was offered an audition with the Winnipeg Symphony in Canada. But his bow contains ivory. He declined the audition because he was concerned his bow might be confiscated when he returned to New York.

“Any musician will tell you that their instrument and their bow are very much to them like a child,” Korris said And you grow accustomed to what you use to express yourself so frequently.”

Antique bows were often made with a piece of ivory that clamps bow hairs onto the wood. Korris’ bow was made in the 1950s by an instrument maker who died in 1966. But Korris can’t prove that on paper.  So the ban applies. As it does to a number of country musicians who have ivory in their antique

“I truly wonder if that in and of itself is going to be in any way helping conservation,” said Korris.

Korris is a vegetarian and says he believes strongly in protecting both wildlife and the environment.

“I am in full support of conservation. I’m just not in support of blanket bans that are done without consideration for stakeholders.”

There is a way around the ban. If musicians can prove their instrument’s ivory predates 1976, they’re exempt. But here’s the catch. They must have documentary proof—lineage of ownership, where the instrument was crafted—next to impossible in many cases.

Adding to potential chaos when planning tours outside the country, there are just a handful of airports with U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents on hand to inspect instruments or endangered animals species.

Craig Hoover at theU.S. Fish and Wildlife Servicesays there’s a general lack of awareness within the music industry about instruments containing threatened wood and animal parts. He says the Service is empathetic. But he says in this case, conservation trumps convenience.

“We’ve seen over the past 5-10 years a dramatic, alarming and unprecedented increase in the slaughter of African elephants to supply the global ivory trade,” he said.

Musicians are not the only people paying attention. U.S. antique dealers sell ivory chess sets where documentation is often elusive. And guns with ivory inlay are now also subject to the ban.