The problem is not that entertainers of color are being blacklisted by local promoters. To the contrary. "It's part of our mission as a non-profit to have a variety of music from around the world," says folk-music presenter Don Gest of In Concert! And according to Ken Foster, director of UApresents, "In terms of centering Tucson, I think we have a moral mandate to go beyond our usual Western European cultural ideologies and bring in other sorts of work. And beyond the moral mandate, it's simply good business. Typically we sell more tickets to international acts than other presenters in our region."
So the problem lies not with the local cultural commissars, nor with local audiences, who are receptive to a little bit of anything. The trouble is that the terrorist attacks, which some link to America's aggressive ignorance of international issues unrelated to protecting our business interests, are compounding our isolation by making foreign artists afraid to visit.
"Artists from abroad, particularly those like Cookin' from Korea and Youssou N'Dour from Senegal, who are in countries even more removed from us than Europe, are seeing on the television a sense of the United States that they find scary right now," says Foster. Cookin', a quartet of knife-wielding drummer-dancer-martial artists in chef's whites, and singer N'Dour canceled their North American tours, including stops in Tucson, shortly after the attacks.
"They see a potential for them as Muslims or people of color to be stopped or harassed in the course of the extreme attention being paid to security issues," says Foster. "And artists in our own country who are people of color or Muslims worry about the same thing. I had an interesting discussion with Ali Akbar Khan [a Bangladesh-born musician who did play here in late September]; he said, 'I'm afraid to fly, not because the plane will crash but because of the potential harassment.' I think that's been very much the case for Asian people in particular. I say 'Asian people' because of the American tendency to lump people into a category; anybody who's different becomes suspect."
Interestingly, it was a Swedish group, Väsen, that canceled the tour of which an In Concert! appearance was to be part. Yet Gest says that his September 14 show by the Madagascar group Tarika went on as planned. "They couldn't fly, but they decided to rent a van and drive all the way across the country," he says. "But because it was September 14, very few people came."
Such performers seem more intrepid than some local audience members. Attendance at most cultural events has declined in the past three months, dramatically so at some of Gest's attractions.
Foster attributes this trend to a fear of public places, not a fear of other cultures. "One person asked if we'd swept the auditorium for bombs and had it sniffed by dogs," he says.
"But among the people who do come out, now there's a heightened appreciation in the house of what's going on onstage. The one that sticks in my mind is Yamato, the Japanese drummers [on October 18]. It was great fun, not exactly high art, but there was such a joy in the audience of being in the company of such skilled artists and being all together.
"One thing that makes it fun to work here is you get people in the audience who are not only culturally diverse themselves, but who are open to the art of other cultures. Not in the exotic sense, not like they're voyeurs, but in a real desire to learn about and be part of a different culture. That phenomenon is actually pretty rare in this country."
Gest concurs: "The audience is still up for good song, particularly if it has a message of any kind."
Yet however resilient the human spirit and intercultural respect may turn out to be, right now the times are troubled, and right now is when presenters are starting to book next season's acts.
"What I've been noticing is for the international acts I haven't gotten any calls," Gest says of agents trying to interest him in their clients. Foster faces the same problem on a larger scale.
"The long-term implications of this are in security issues, visa issues, and taking the current situation and extrapolating it out, so there's been a significant drop in artists from other countries who are planning to tour for '02-'03," Foster says. "We're gonna put out a season next year, obviously, but whether it has the range of international work that we've had in past years is a good question.
"My worry is that people in their urge to be patriotic will become xenophobic and uninterested in other cultures. What we as arts presenters do is we create a reality in our community about culture. When we bring in work from other countries, we say, 'Look, there's a different reality, a different aesthetic.' If I as an arts presenter don't do it, how will people know about these things? And if they don't know about them, how will they understand what's going on in the rest of the world?"