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Destroyed By Customs? Or Stolen? Whatever Happened, Flutes Are Gone

Flutist Boujemaa Razgui and his colleagues from the ensemble Al Andalus.
Courtesy of the artists
Flutist Boujemaa Razgui and his colleagues from the ensemble Al Andalus.

A case stirring intense outrage in the classical music community and starting to gain steam in the mainstream press is getting more mysterious by the day.

On New Year's Eve, the popular classical music blog Slipped Disc, written by London-based Norman Lebrecht, published a story with an incendiary headline primed to garner fury from musicians and everyday travelers alike: "Outrage at JFK as Customs men smash a musician's instruments." The details Lebrecht recounted were sketchy (and many of the facts then repeated in mainstream press outlets were simply wrong). But it seemed that flutist Boujemaa Razgui had endured a traveler's worst nightmare: his most precious possessions had vanished in transit.

Razgui is an accomplished artist who performs regularly with wildly diverse colleagues. Playing end-blown Middle Eastern flutes called ney and kawala, he has appeared on tracks by Beyonce and Shakira and for Cirque du Soleil, as well as appearing with early music ensembles including Al Andalus and the Boston Camerata. Razgui makes all of his own flutes, and says that their value lies not so much in the materials, but in the time he invests in crafting and maintaining them, with each flute suited for different kinds of musical styles and circumstances. "I spend something like two years on them," says the musician, who also sings and plays instruments including the violin and oud. "That's what can't be replaced."

Razgui, a Canadian artist of Moroccan origin who now lives in Brockton, Mass., was traveling from Marrakech to Boston on an exhausting four-part itinerary that began Dec. 21. He left his native Marrakech and flew to Madrid. He then took American Airlines Flight 0095 from Madrid to New York, arriving at about 1 PM on Dec. 22, and finally flew from New York to Boston for the final leg of his trip in the late afternoon. Per U.S. regulations, he tried to pick up his luggage to clear Customs at JFK in the early afternoon of Dec. 22 before catching the last flight in his journey a few hours later. He says that his bag, however, never showed up at the JFK baggage carousel.

Razgui says that he spent two hours at baggage claim and filed a missing bag report with American. At that point, the musician says, "American told me to go home to Massachusetts as I had planned, and they'd deliver the bag when they found it."

However, what Razgui received at his home a day after his arrival back in the U.S. was far different than what he expected. He had originally packed some clothes, personal items and canes of professional-grade bamboo for making new flutes. And atop the canes he had packed a special case containing 13 finished instruments that he had made himself — 11 neys and two other Middle Eastern flutes called kawalas.

Razgui says that when American delivered his luggage on Dec. 23, "The bag was empty, except for a few clothes." He was also informed that the "agricultural materials" in his bag had been seized and destroyed by Customs. And the 13 flutes he had packed on top of the canes were missing altogether.

A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection asserted in an email exchange with NPR Music yesterday that there were no instruments involved at all in the agency's actions, "just fresh bamboo seized that were found by CBP agriculture specialists." (U.S. law stipulates that such fresh plants are prohibited from entering the country to deter the spread of plant pathogens.) According to the Customs representative, the only materials seized were "fresh green bamboo canes approximately three to four feet long inside of unclaimed baggage." So what happened to those flutes?

A spokesperson for American Airlines said yesterday evening that the carrier had been unaware of this incident until we contacted the airline, but noted that once baggage is unloaded, responsibility passes over to Customs. Razgui says that he has not tried to contact American Airlines himself since the carrier delivered the bag, as he had believed that Customs had destroyed his instruments along with the bamboo canes.

After a day spent talking to international press, an anguished Razgui says that now he doesn't know what to make of the whole situation. "Maybe someone took the flutes," he says. "I really don't know what's going on." In the meantime, though, he's been missing gigs — and has borrowed a cheap ney from one of his students.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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