In June, the United States begins strict enforcement of a ban on ivory from the tusks of African and Asian elephants. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls what’s happening to elephants today “an unprecedented slaughter.” But the ban is forcing musicians to make a choice --- perform without their favorite instruments, or give up work that takes them across the U.S. border.
Stars in northern Mexico, the band Mariachi Frontera is rehearsing in front of neighbors on Calle Allende in Ojinaga, a Mexican town on the Rio Grande beside Presidio, Texas. The band is home to record an album they’d initially planned to lay down across the border in the arts mecca of Marfa, Texas.
Band leader Raymondo Sevilla says 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 instrument 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.
“I kinda subscribe to the old adage that it’s the craftsman not the tool,” Sevilla says through a translator.
Had Mariachi Frontera recorded the album in the U.S., says Marfa, Texas recording engineer Gory Smelley, they'd have done it Marfa and almost certainly have worked with Sevilla.
“I'm a musician, I understand a musician wanting a special bow. But if for whatever reason I could not use my own, I'd find one that worked for me," says Smelley.
Musicians face the same dilemma on the northern border.
Bassist Taddes Korris was offered an audition with the Winnipeg Symphony in Canada. But his bow contains ivory. He’s declined because he’s concerned his bow might be confiscated when he returns to New York.
“Any musician will tell you that their instrument and their bow are very much to them like a child. And you grow accustomed to what you use to express yourself so frequently,” says Korris.
Antique bows were often made with a small piece of ivory that clamps the 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.
“I truly wonder if that in and of itself is going to be in any way helping conservation. 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.
Craig Hoover at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says 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 five to ten years a dramatic, alarming and unprecedented increase in the slaughter of African elephants to supply the global ivory trade,” says Hoover.
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 inlays are now also subject to the ban.