Music – It’s as American as apple pie. Last week 39.3 million Americans tuned in to watch the Grammys. I was not one of them. It hurt too much. That morning I had to tell a Master drummer and dancer who has spent the last five years sharing with our country the unique and beautiful music and dance of Guinea West Africa that he was no longer welcome here. The discordant and sad timber of his voice when I delivered the news, were not welcome notes.
Senny is the lead dundun player for Jeh Kulu, an African dance company based in Burlington, Vermont. For almost two decades Jeh Kulu has brought to the U.S. the music and dance of West Africa. As a member of Jeh Kulu, Senny held regular dance classes for adults and children, conducted regular workshops and residencies for local elementary schools and high school schools, taught at universities around the country, and performed regularly for audiences of every type.
On the books at least, our laws recognize the importance of bringing to our shores the sounds and culturally unique talents of others beyond our shores. Without their influence, classically American forms of music such as jazz dance and Zydco would not exist. The P-3 visa category was created for just this purpose, to insure that we continue to evolve and grow through the infusion of the talents of those that are different. Yet sadly, despite the fact that our laws recognize the importance of this mission, those administering them do not.
Senny went home in January to visit his parents and children and to learn new moves and music so that he could bring them back to the American public to continue sharing with it the beauty of his culture. His application to extend his status in the U.S. was approved by the USCIS. It recognized the important role that he has and continues to play in the U.S. However, when he applied for his visa so that he could return he was told that he had been here too long and thus, they didn’t think he would return to Guinea. Ironically, this finding was made despite the fact that Senny had returned to Guinea to engage in activities that in and of themselves show that his ties to his home country remain as strong as ever.
Senny never violated his status while in the U.S. He did only what he was authorized to do, that is bring to the U.S. the uniqueness of his culture by performing and teaching regularly and sharing with us something that we would not have access to without him. Senny’s costumes and instruments remain in the U.S., however, they have been silenced. Not me. Today I can’t help but sing the following for Senny and the hundreds of artists and entertainers who are refused entry to our country:
A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to
Make me smile
And I knew if he had the chance
That he would teach our people dance
And they would be happy all the while
But February made me shiver
With the decision DOS delivered
Bad news at the Consulate
Made sure he’d dance not one more step
I do remember that I cried
When he told me his visa’d been denied
This damned thing touched me deep inside
(it was) the day his music died