Musician Says Customs Agents at JFK Destroyed 13 Flutes

Thursday, January 02, 2014 - 04:05 PM

Boujemaa Razgui Boujemaa Razgui

Updated 1/4/14

Just as the holiday travel season winds down, claims that a U.S. Customs official at John F. Kennedy airport destroyed 13 handmade flutes have sparked outrage on the Internet this week.

Boujemaa Razgui, a Canadian flutist who performs with Boston Camerata and other ensembles, was flying from his native Morocco to Boston via JFK on Dec. 22 when officials reportedly opened his bags and determined that the flutes – 11 nays and two kawalas – were "agricultural products" and "had to be destroyed."

The flutist, who made all of the instruments himself using hard-to-find reeds, first told Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc blog on Tuesday that a Customs official at JFK mistook the traditional instruments for pieces of bamboo and ordered their destruction. He was said to be distraught. "I have such great memories with these nays through the past years, from culture to any moment that I remember."

Razgui did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Thursday.

But in an interview with NPR Music the musician sought to further clarify what happened. The instruments, it seems, were originally packed in a bag along with some clothes, personal items and canes of professional-grade bamboo for making new flutes. The bag never showed up on the carousel at JFK and he filed a missing luggage report. Hours later, it was delivered to his home in Stockton, MA by American Airlines along with a message that the "agricultural materials" in the bag had been seized and destroyed by Customs. The 13 flutes he had packed on top of the canes were missing altogether.

A Customs and Border Patrol spokesman said in a statement Razgui's luggage contained no instruments, only bamboo.

"CBP Agriculture Specialists at John F. Kennedy International Airport discovered fresh green bamboo canes approximately three to four feet long inside of unclaimed baggage arriving on a flight from Madrid, Spain on Sunday, December 22, 2013," the statement said.

"Fresh bamboo is prohibited from entering the United States to prevent the introduction of exotic plant pathogens. The fresh bamboo canes were seized and destroyed in accordance with established protocols to prevent the introduction of plant pathogens into the United States."

An American Airlines spokesman told NPR that the carrier had been unaware of this incident.

Razgui told the Boston Globe that he was instructed to write a letter to the Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC. His story has generated hundreds of comments on blogs and on Twitter.

Razgui says he's not sure what happened now. "Maybe someone took the flutes," he told NPR. "I really don't know what's going on."

Below: Razgui plays with a traditional Arabic music ensemble in 2012:


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Comments [9]

Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Concetta, very well said, when I contacted Congressman Frank Wolf's office several years ago about the three broken violins from China that were blatantly destroyed by Customs it was only after a two month runaround by Customs and Postal Authorities. You could not believe the stupid answers I received when I called Customs administrative offices at JFK where the instruments were destroyed.
First total denial that they were ever "inspected", then after I sent photo copies of the stamps showing they were opened by Customs I was told they never could have been broken by inspectors. Then I took them to my partner a luthier and mechanical engineer with 50 years experience who has also worked on two Strads, who stated in writing that they had to be broken by hand or clamps in the middle of the neck by examining the patterns of the wood breaks. Great forensic work.
Customs continued to deny this in New York. Finally I went to a major violin shop in Manhattan during a trip to the Met and paid $250.oo for a written expert opinion on how the violins were broken. Still denial from Customs.
However once Congressman's Wolf's office got involved I received a letter saying I would be compensated for the violins. It still took months before I received a check form Customs.
I know my rights and I know how to fight government after years as a Journalist etc on the Hill in DC However I feel sorry for people who simply do not know how or where to speak up and stand up to government bureaucrats, who is some and I stress some cases, care little for the people who are paying their salaries.
One would hope that the government officials who feel they are immune to scrutiny are in the minority, however with the culture coming from our White House which seemingly thinks it can govern by executive mandate and trash our Constitution, I fear that our government is rapidly spinning out of control.
I only hope the musician who owned the flutes so blatantly destroyed will fight for reimbursement and not stand for allowing some moronic Customs inspectors to get away with this travesty. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 06 2014 07:51 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Dear Concetta, in the mid 1980's I worked as an "asset" with many government employees from Langley and other three letter agencies. As with any large organization they do have some "bad apples' however the vast majority of people employed by agencies whose mission it is to protect the American public are well meaning people, who risk their lives in many dangerous places of the world.
I have been in Lebanon, Libya and Syria and other front line countries and I owe my life in two situations to people employed by these agencies. While we continue to be threatened by Muslim extremists lets not throw the baby out with the bath water. I agree many of the methods used by some agencies especially the TSA can be considered over reach, but until we are allowed to politically and ethnically profile our enemies we will still be groping grandmothers at U.S. Airports while letting so called Muslim "students" through security lines.
This is not the fault of the front line employees, but our politically correct political officials who are afraid to "tell it like it is". I doubt is any Government agencies are watching your emails.
I was followed by several agencies including the Secret Service, and even polygraphed by them when I returned from Libya in the 1980's and I never protested, because they were doing their jobs and I had nothing to fear, even though their black cars were parked on the little country road in front of my farm for months. Something called "high surveillance" where they want you to know they are watching you.
God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 05 2014 01:06 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Clarification to Concetta, while the actions of some people at U.S. Customs is indeed shocking, not all aspects of the Patriot Act are negative. In this post 9/11 world, and in light of the number of failed attempts to attack this country and the recent Boston Bombing, our law enforcement agencies must be allowed to pursue threats to the American public in ways that would have been considered intrusive prior to 9/11. Having traveled throughout the Middle East in previous wars, and having interviewed a number of terrorists in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Libya in my past career, I can tell you that we live in a very unsafe world.
Of course it is overkill to destroy musical instruments for no reason, but I do not think that the Patriot Act has anything to do with the overzealous actions of a number of Customs inspectors at major airports and shipping facilities.
Governments unchecked by the press and the public can easily overstep the boundaries of personal liberties, and it is good for people of all different political beliefs to speak out against what they feel is over reach by our government officials. I would never think of abridging anyones right to state their opinions. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 04 2014 02:01 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Dear Concetta, looks like you had a computer failure, or somehow hit the send key many tines. I do however totally agree with you sentiments. It is sad that some U.S. Government bureaucrats think that they are exempt from our laws and common civility and can hide behind immunity when taking our rights away. Customs and Border Enforcement agents have a tough job but that does not give them licence to destroy valuable items during inspections unless they have exhausted alternative inspection techniques and have real cause to destroy objects. If those items destroyed during inspections are found clear of contraband I believe the owners should be compensated for the items. This is something that should be brought to the attention of your local Congressmen/women. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 04 2014 11:13 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

This comes as NO news to me. While Customs has a tough job they destroy a lot of valuable items. Before fully retiring to focus on the farm and my Cello lessons, I had a small in-home string instrument business and purchased a number of "Curly Maple" violins form a reputable luthier in China, they cost me in excess of $500.00 each and sold very well.
On my second order three of the five violins arrived with the necks entirely broken off. This vender knew how to pack them, they were supported in heavy cases and had additional packing support under the necks and around the finger board and were in heavy molded cases. In all they were packed to withstand everything but customs breaking the necks, and removing the finger boards, to see if the necks were possibly hollow and had drugs, etc in them. EMS the Chinese equivalent of our UPS would not honor the insurance since the cases arrived with "customs inspection" stickers on them.
I had to finally go to my Congressman Frank Wolf who after seven months was able to get a refund from Customs for me.
This is not an isolated case, as I have heard many "horror stories" of musical instruments and other valuable items being destroyed at various entry ports in the United States.
In later years I had two other experiences with receiving instruments broken during "customs inspections.'
While these inspections are random and do not include every package coming into The United States they cause a lot of damage. I also recall our local Postmistress telling me how many packages they received with customs inspection stamps on them that are broken by Customs or Postal Inspectors and simply thrown back in pieces to the shipping boxes and sent to the buyer.
With our Government out of control in many areas one would hope that those working at U.S. Customs inspection services at major airports and shipping ports would be trained at alternative methods such as x-raying etc before blatantly destroying valuable instruments.
This was one of the reason I decided to stop selling Violins, Violas and Cellos imported from China unless I got them from U.S. distributors and could be sure I was getting items in their original condition. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 03 2014 09:22 AM
Charles Warwick from New Jersey

I travel 2-3 times per year as a musician......I've learned to accept that if one item of mine has been broken or destroyed, it was a successful trip....these people are thoughtless animals and as I have said since 2002,If you want intelligent safety in flying, consult the Israelis....
We are a "McDonalds" nation anymore......

Jan. 03 2014 08:55 AM

That's really terrible. Though, if the items were so special, why the heck would he travel with them in a checked bag? Anyone who leaves anything valuable in a checked bag (especially when going through customs) is just asking for heartache. Important or valuable items should be carried on the plane, or shipped to the final destination.

Jan. 03 2014 02:12 AM
John Flory from New Jersey

I agree with the sentiment,
there should be an "in-depth process".
But -
It was not TSA (Transportation Security Administration),
but Customs officials that destroyed the musical instruments.

Jan. 02 2014 11:14 PM
RUCB_Alum from Central New Jersey

This is outrageous. If TSA has no appeals process before personal belongings are destroyed than they need to amend their procedure.

To keep this from being a complete loss, is there a more in-depth process that *could* have been followed that would have prevented their destruction?

I am still in shock...

Jan. 02 2014 06:59 PM

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