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July 5, 2006

Visa snags disrupting choral festival

The Missoulian (MT):

The U.S. government has denied two vocal choirs from Africa entrance into this country to participate in next month's International Choral Festival in Missoula, and the status of choirs from two other nations remains uncertain.

“The paranoia level has definitely gone up,” Peter Park, the festival's executive director, said Wednesday. Visa applications for choirs in Zambia and Nigeria invited to perform at the festival were rejected by U.S. consulates in those countries. Another choir, one from Algeria that was scheduled to perform at a festival in Idaho, also had its visa applications denied. The Missoula festival had been considering adding the Algerian choir to its roster.

Meantime, the Anson City Choir of South Korea is questionable after a dozen of its members had their tourist visa applications rejected by the United States and were told they must apply for a “P” visa, which covers foreign athletes and entertainers who enter the U.S. to compete or perform for money. The choral festival, which runs July 12-16, is a nonprofit entity, and does not pay choirs to perform.

“It's all very arbitrary and capricious,” said Bill Martinez, a San Francisco attorney who has helped the choral festival navigate the rocky road of visa applications created after the terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001. “We're not putting our best foot forward in the diplomatic world. We're talking about bringing in a choir from South Korea - come on, they're our neighbors and friends. It's the whole point of the festival.”

Two-thirds of the Korean choir has 10-year visas still in effect, but one-third - including the choir's accompanist - do not. “B-1 visas - tourist visas - are what all the other choirs get in on, but the embassy in Korea is evidently on a different page,” Park said. A call to the U.S. State Department seeking comment was not returned Wednesday.

Missoula's festival is also unsure of the status of the Ukraine's Boyan choir. Park hasn't heard whether the choir's visa applications were approved, and has a Russian interpreter coming in Thursday to place a call to the director. “We're hoping no news is not bad news,” Park said. It creates a logistical nightmare for the festival, which will soon get its programs back from the printer knowing the schedule may be wrong. “We do contingency scheduling for many situations,” Park said. “It's like a big math problem. It's a matrix that shifts all the time.”

Park said the thousands of people who attend the festival will be encouraged to check the Missoulian or the choral festival's Web site for the latest information on what choirs are here, and when and where they will be performing. More than a dozen choirs from Australia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, India, Slovenia, Taiwan, Wales and America are expected. Park said his “gut instinct” is that it is even tougher to get choirs into the United States now than it was during the last festival in 2003, which was the first held since the terrorist attacks. The Navrachana School Choir of Vadodara, India, had to go to the embassy in Bombay and perform to prove to U.S. officials it actually was a choir before its visas were issued for this year's festival. “That's show biz,” said Martinez, who has specialized in helping musicians and artists obtain visas since a Cuban group was refused entrance to participate in a Latin American music festival in San Francisco Martinez co-founded more than 20 years ago.

The mechanics of getting performers into the country are easier now than they were in 2003, Martinez said. There's an avenue, called premium processing, instituted by U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services that expedites visa applications. But it costs $1,000. “If you're an entertainer coming here and you're going to make $100,000 or something on tour, that's nothing,” Martinez said. “But if you're a nonprofit, that extra $1,000 really hurts.”

It's what the South Korean choir will have to do if it is to perform in Missoula - and the cost is $1,000 per person. “Here we go,” Martinez said. “They've already paid for their regular visa application that was turned down. Now it's an extra $1,000, plus the $190 registration fee. It will probably be another $100 to use Fed Ex to get the paperwork back and forth. Even then, there's no guarantee the applications will be approved. “It's a very discouraging system and it's cloaked in this veil of national security.”

The bigger question, Martinez said, is why a choir in the Czech Republic can get visas through normal channels, and why one in South Korea - one that filled out the exact same paperwork - is forced to jump through so many hoops. “Even with premium processing, it takes 10 days to find out whether you've been approved,” Martinez said. “It takes another couple days to get all the paperwork where it needs to be. What's today? June 28? The festival starts July 12? It'd be a real nail-biter.” It's unfortunate, Park said, because the Anson City Choir would be one of the 2006 festival's highlights. “They're really top-notch,” he said. “They've released several recordings and they've been to the World Choral Symposium, which is considered the Olympics of choral music.”

Posted by acapnews at July 5, 2006 10:38 PM