What It Takes To Be Culturally Unique

This article was first published as “The little klezmer band that changed the way the US issues visas” in The Times of Israel.

Orquestra Kef, the Buenos Aires-based klezmer fusion band

PALO ALTO, California — A US immigration agency has expanded its determining criteria for giving visas to visiting artists, after the rejection of a Latin-klezmer fusion band from Argentina brought to light the office’s narrow definition of the term “culturally unique.”

With the decision, the agency has belatedly admitted that in our globalized world, “culturally unique” art is just as likely to be of a fusion or hybrid genre as it is to be a purely traditional one, opening America’s gates to a number of musicians who don’t strictly stick to the sheet music of their forefathers.

On May 15, US Citizenship and Immigration Services’s Administrative Appeals Office issued a binding precedent decision addressing the term “culturally unique” and its significance in the adjudication of petitions for performing artists and entertainers, all due to a little-known klezmer band out of Buenos Aires.

It is not unusual for cultural organizations in the United States, like Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center, to run into difficulty in bringing foreign performers into the country. They are at the mercy of the USCIS, which determines whether artists meet the criteria for receiving a P-3 nonimmigrant visa, which allows “culturally unique” groups or individuals to enter the country to perform, teach, or coach temporarily.

Although it had not traditionally had too much trouble in procuring such visas for its visiting acts, the Skirball Cultural Center did encounter a serious glitch in November 2009. That’s when the director of USCIS’s California Service Center denied Orquestra Kef, a Buenos Aires-based klezmer fusion band a visa to come headline the center’s big Latin-flavored “Fiesta Hanukkah” program. The agency claimed that the group’s music, which fuses klezmer with tango and other Argentinean sounds, was not traditional enough to be “culturally unique.”

Click here to read more and watch a video of Orquestra Kef playing their music.

©2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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