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Immigration decision could make it easier for foreign 'fusion' bands to play in US

Skirball Cultural Center

Orchesta Kef, a band from Argentina, was denied a visa in November 2009 to perform in Los Angeles.

The next time Orquesta Kef gets invited to play in the United States, it may actually be able to get into the country.

The band of young musicians from Buenos Aires, who blend Klezmer music – traditional instrumental music of Eastern European Jews – with Argentine tango and folk, were denied entry in November 2009 by U.S. immigration officials. A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director recommended against issuing the group a so-called P-3 a visa to perform at a “Fiesta Hanukkah” concert in Los Angeles, saying there was no proof the group’s act was “culturally unique.”

After public blowback, an appeals board re-examined the case and reversed the decision – but by then Hanukkah had passed and Orquesta Kef never got to play in L.A.


This week, Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it was officially clarifying its definition of “culturally unique” to specify that it “is not limited to traditional art forms, but may include artistic expression that is deemed to be a hybrid or fusion of more than one culture or region.”

The new definition will apply to reviews of future applications for P-3 visas from foreign performing artists and entertainers.

“It was something that needed to have a more fine-tuned definition,” said immigration services spokeswoman Sharon Rummery. “It’s going to make it easier for us to adjudicate cases like these in the future."

People who want to perform in the U.S. typically need one of the following: a P-1 visa, issued to internationally recognized athletes, artists and entertainers; a P-2, for artists or entertainers in a reciprocal exchange program; a P-3 visa, issued to entertainers participating in a culturally unique program; or an O-1, known as the “genius” visa, for individuals with extraordinary ability in the arts, athletics, education or sciences (NBA star Dirk Nowitski of Germany, for example, has an O-1).

In its original P-3 denial, an immigration official concluded of Orquesta Kef:

“The evidence repeatedly suggests that the group performs a hybrid or fusion style of music, incorporating musical styles from other cultures and regions. A hybrid or fusion style of music cannot be considered culturally unique to one particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe, or other group of persons.”

The band had been booked by the Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish cultural institution in Los Angeles, to perform at its annual Hanukkah holiday concert. In the visa application, Skirball included a short biography of the band, describing the ensemble’s  “unique musical style” as “based on the millenary force of tradition and the powerful emotion of the Jewish culture, mixed in with Latin American sounds.”

Skirball also provided letters from music experts who testified to the group’s unique sound.

 “How more culturally specific can you get than Jewish music of Latin America?" Jordan Peimer, Skirball’s vice president and director of programs, thought at the time.

The visa denial was the topic of several scathing columns, including a blog post on Foreign Policy magazine’s website sarcastically titled “Keeping America safe from Latin Klezmer bands.”

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Peimer, who said the initial denial was “a huge missed opportunity,” called the latest decision “a vindication for the band … and also a vindication for the American people.” 

“It says our government works,” he told msnbc.com on Wednesday.

Alejandro Filippa, a New York immigration attorney who specializes in artist visa applications, said the immigration agency’s clarification of the definition of “culturally unique” was a positive step in a world of increasingly diverse and interdependent cultures.

“The door is now more open for an entire new wave of artists to perform in the United States,” Filippa said in an email to msnbc.com. “Unfortunately, the fact this application was initially denied is indicative of the cultural ignorance of some USCIS officers in adjudicating cases that are more reflective of the modern, diverse international community we now live in.”

As for when Orquesta Kef might finally play in the U.S., Peimer says he hopes to book the band for a future Hanukkah concert.

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