The truth slowly emerges about the smashed-up flutes at JFK

The truth slowly emerges about the smashed-up flutes at JFK


norman lebrecht

January 03, 2014

We have been in touch again with Boujemaa Razgui, the virtuoso player and instrument maker whose 11 neys were seized and destroyed by Customs at JFK Airport, as reported exclusively on Slipped Disc. Boujemaa has since been talking to the Globe and Mail, CNN and other media. Notwithstanding language difficulties, the facts of the case are now abundantly clear.



The case in which Boujemaa carried his instruments and some bamboos for making new ones, was seized by Customs at JFK Airport. It was delivered empty to his home, he assures us, with a slip of paper saying all of the contents had been destroyed.

A spokesman for New York Customs initially admitted that they destroyed bamboos, but not instruments. Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection later told Foreign Policy report that they had identified the instruments as agricultural products that risked introducing “exotic plant pathogens” to the US.

Boujemaa told the Globe and Mail: ‘I’ve been doing this for 26 years – travelling with my instruments and material to make instruments – and nothing like this has ever happened …They never gave me an opportunity to explain.’

An eminent ensemble director and colleague of Boujemaa’s told us last night: ‘To put the best possible light on the NY Customs assertion: The agents conceivably did not KNOW that they were destroying musical instruments; they thought that the items were just sticks of wood. This may eventually be their defense.’

Boujemaa told CNN: ‘I need something to work with, it doesn’t make sense to me that they were just cut off, I have a big heart for this… Right now I don’t have a job; I don’t know what to do… I need my materials to make my living.’


  • If what you report in your first paragraph here is true, my first question would be why (and, for that matter, how) did US Customs destroy the flutes but return the case to Mr Razgui? If US Customs really did identify the instruments in the case – rightly or wrongly – as ‘agricultural products that risked introducing “exotic plant pathogens” to US’, on what grounds did they deem the case in which they’d been carried to be free from such risk and accordingly return it to its owner?

    • Wanda K. Sonnentag says:

      The agents evidently have holes in their heads as well. I certainly hope something is being done to help the musician, and something being done to the agents as reprimand and maybe monetarily to help the musician.

  • Alberto Martinez says:

    All bamboos have holes… least for the custom agents

  • David Bernard says:

    This is a terrible situation, CBP should not have destroyed the actual flutes, and CBP should have contacted him sooner. However it was idiotic to bring raw bamboo cane IN THE SAME CONTAINER as the flutes and expect 1) that CBP will not detect that you are smuggling an ILLEGAL SUBSTANCE into the US and 2) that CBP agents will be able to know the difference between a flute and a stalk of raw cane. If these flutes were so important to him, and I believe that they were, he really should have handled this differently. Not smart at all.

    • Kit Baker says:

      I think before we start throwing around words like ‘idiotic’ it might be an idea to give this wider consideration. For example, it looks like Mr. Razgui is well-traveled. Has he ever been treated this way in other countries?

      This is not an isolated problem. Film director Abbas Kiarostami and opera director Peter Stein have had serious issues with US Customs in recent years through no fault of their own.

      • Neil van der Linden says:

        Abbas Kiarostami has directed opera too, once… Cosi fan Tutte. 😉

        Meanwhile I would be interested to know what were the circumstances in which Kiarostami and Stein were refused?

  • Greg Hlatky says:

    “The truth slowly emerges…” What’s actually emerging from this (if you’re not pushing a narrative) is an Armenian Radio joke:

    The Armenian Radio was asked: “Is it true that US Customs asked to see Mr. Razgui’s 25 valuable flutes and proceeded to remove and smash every one of them?”

    The Armenian Radio answers: “In principle yes, but it wasn’t 25 but 11, they weren’t valuable flutes but fresh, green bamboo canes and Mr. Razgui wasn’t asked and wasn’t present.”

    • ed says:

      I don’t know understand why you are mocking the destruction of this man’s flutes, whether or not his flute case also contained raw bamboo. It seems a bit perverse.

  • I can understand the Custom agents destroying the Bamboo, but not the flutes. This just seems petty. However, why could they not simply irradiate the Bamboo or the whole lot? This would have eliminated the risk, and I’m certain I’ve seen something similar done by Australian Custom Agents who have similar fears on one of those Reality TV programmes.

    • Leslie says:

      I can’t understand them destroying anything before asking Mr, Razgui about them.

      Well, given the bureaucratic mind, I understand that it it happened. What I can’t understand is that one human being wouldn’t ask before destroying….

  • Michael says:

    There are plenty of bamboo items that are imported into the US, including furniture, mats, fishing rods, chopsticks etc. Maybe Mr. Razgui should investigate the laws regarding the importation of bamboo to see if US customs broke the laws.

    • Neil van der Linden says:

      Still by all means it would have been appropriate for customs to inquire with Mr Razgui and inform him that he might be importing undesired material. Which as flutes are made from dead ligneous material he probably was not even in the case of the raw material.

      Meanwhile it would be desirable if the US customs would pay more attention to really harmful imported biological material, like the giant snakes that are now infesting the Everglades that were imported as pets or the notorious killer bees that were imported to crossbreed with indigenous bees and now wipe out the natural population.

  • V.Lind says:

    Mr. Razgui was interviewed (top story) on a national show on CBC radio last night. His English was pretty poor, which must have added to his difficulties both in comprehension and communication at JFK — he misunderstood one of the clearly-spoken interviewer’s questions — but even so it emerged that he was importing fresh bamboo, which I took it to be at least a part of the problem. This post confirms that.

    Presumably he is a bit of an innocent, and it is clear that his motives are simply and merely musical. But, let’s face it, customs agents are not hired for their breadth of cultural awareness. One would have thought that, with all the various problems of travelling with instruments, Mr. Razgui might have run across the notion that his documentation ought to be in order. A violist I know recently was in China and had to arrange to borrow bows there as whatever his prized ones are made of contravened Chinese import regulations and he did not want to risk confiscation despite being advised that there could be an exemption for him.

    Nonetheless, this is a very sad story, th elatest and in many ways the worst, at least recently, in the increasingly problematic situation of musicians travelling with instruments. I hope some of the major media pickup expands its investigations beyond this unhappy instance to the continuing problem.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    Neys are made from dried wood like bamboo. So not fresh sprouts. So hardly any confusion possible. Moreover the stupid customs people should have asked some questions. And the stupid people should have noticed the similarities between the unprocessed bamboo sticks and the finished instruments. No excuse possible, except for utter negligence, disdain, arrogance and ignorance. If not xenophobia.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    A child could see that the holes indicate to the tubes being used as flutes. Children have them made from plastic. Or don’t they anymore?

  • Leslie says:

    What would have been correct is to contact the passenger and ask about the flutes and cane. That would have been right.

  • Philip Young says:

    The following regarding bamboo is taken from CBP website:

    “In general, bamboo that is not thoroughly dried and is therefore still capable of propagation is prohibited entry into the United States.

Bamboo that is thoroughly dried and split or cut lengthwise (rendering it incapable of propagation) will be inspected upon entry and released.

    Unsplit dried bamboo canes/stakes/poles also are allowed entry into the United States after inspection: however, if the bamboo canes/stakes/poles are intended for garden or nursery use, the shipment must be fumigated (T404-d treatment extended to 24 hours) upon arrival at the U.S. port of entry.

    Bamboo furniture, bamboo cloth, and other manufactured products made of bamboo do not require fumigation and will be released upon inspection.”

    Nowhere does it say that the bamboo (canes or products) shall be destroyed, but at worst, fumigated.

    • James Louder says:

      Voilà! And these flutes were not even made of bamboo, but of giant cane–also sometimes called bamboo cane, which adds to the confusion, perhaps for Mr. Razgui as well, whose English apparently is far from perfect.

  • Neil Hamilton says:

    The rules on importing vegetable matter that is foreign are very clear. Ignorance is not an excuse. I am also a professional musician who always declares his wooden clarinets on entry to Australia. Play by the well documented rules and all will go smoothly. Simple really.

  • James Louder says:

    I had read elsewhere that the wood in question was not bamboo but giant cane (Arundo dorax). Is this correct? That’s what it looks like to me, in the photo of the flutes, above.

    The question that remains is, was Mr. Razgui indeed carrying green cane (or bamboo?) While overseas,had Mr. Razgui obtained a fresh stock of cane which he was bringing home to dry and eventually use? If so, that would put a different complexion on the matter.

    On the other hand–and speaking as an instrument maker–I can’t imagine why Mr. Razgui, himself a maker, would pack green wood in the same box as his flutes. The humidity alone could seriously harm the instruments–kind of like packing a green, pitchy spruce log in with your Guanerius.

    I’m still betting this is just one more case of brutal stupidity by the CBP–Krystian Zimerman’s piano all over again. But still,it would be good to clarify this point.

  • It’s called tyranny. The US has descended into that dark pit.

  • B. Helms says:

    I gather that ney flutes are commonly made from Arundo donax, which superficially resembles, but is NOT, bamboo. A. donax belongs to the Poaceae (grasses), not the Bambusoidaceae (bamboos).

    The official USDA instructions for Poaceae amount to:

    If it isn’t a Federal Noxious Weed (A. donax isn’t on that list) AND if it isn’t a potpourri ingredient, an herbarium specimen, lemongrass, certain other grasses (A. donax isn’t listed here either), or herbage, then INSPECT and RELEASE.

    It may be of interest to Mr Razgui that A. donax has been introduced to the US and grows wild in the southern states. Perhaps he can find a suitable domestic source, and not have to jump through all the hoops involved in international travel with unusual plant materials.

    At all events, he probably needs to know the proper scientific name (Arundo donax, pronounced “Ah-RUN-doe DOE-nacks”) and family (Poaceae – “Po-ACE-ee-ay”) in case he has any more Customs problems.

    This has been most educational, if not always in a good way.

  • ARKADY.COM says:

    I’ve just Reposted this article, and other related to this case here:


    This has been my Cause since the NIGHTMARE that happened to me in LAX! That’s why I created this Page:


  • I’ve just Reposted this article, and other related to this case here:


    This has been my Cause since the NIGHTMARE that happened to me in LAX! That’s why I created this Page:


  • James Louder says:

    Sorry…giant cane is Arundo doNax.

    • Arundo Donax is a nightmare invasive plant, so there’s good reason to be careful. But you can’t propagate it from a dry, dead stalk.

      • Neil van der Linden says:

        And for a net you need a dead stalk, and only a dead stalk.

        Only at the end of Tannhäuser do such dead stalks bloom again.

        Anyway the customs should have contacted the client instead of destroying something that they did not know.

        I notice that some of the comments become a git aggressive here. Maybe those who write them think that tone is allowed in the case of instruments they don’t know. Like the customs people thought they can destroy instruments they don’t know and don’t understand.

      • James Louder says:

        It’s true that wild stands of giant cane can be problematical, but the plant has its uses too. Because of its dense mat of rhyzomes, it’s very good for consolidating eroding soils, especially the sandy soils of the South. It makes for very good and easily maintained hedges, and it’s a good candidate for biomass fuel production. But the main point to retain is that giant cane (Arundo donax) was brought to the USA generations ago. Mr. Rasgui’s private stock simply doesn’t signify. And, as I wrote in an earlier post, it’s even possible that the unworked cane he was travelling with was of American origin.

  • Robert says:

    Nearly as horrifying as Mr. Boujamaa’s case were the the 2008 and 2011 FBI raids on the Gibson guitar factory in TN on the premise of upholding the Lacey Act.

    Not sure if the same law is being invoked here but the Gibson company, after being raided twice by federal agents who destroyed thousands of dollars of valuable wood intended to make guitar fingerboards, ended up paying an additional $300,000 in penalties for their violation.

    Here’s a video explaining “The Great Gibson Guitar Raid”:

    and the NPR report:

  • Wondering says:

    The CNN report says that he was flying from Madrid to JFK and did not claim his bag at JFK. I’m wondering why he didn’t. It’s routine. An experienced traveler (and even inexperienced ones, who are advised at check-in) would certainly know that you always claim your bag at your first point of arrival in the US and carry it personally thru US customs, along with your declaration form.

    The declaration form, which everyone is required to fill out on board en route to the US, specifically asks whether or not you are bringing agricultural products into the US. Since he explained to CNN that he was bringing in raw bamboo with his flutes, he would have had to put that on his customs declaration. This automatically would have made him subject to a search by customs officials.THAT would have been the time to explain about his flutes and the bamboo. For reasons unknown, he did not do this. Perhaps he knew they would seize the bamboo at that time.

    I think that since he is an experienced traveler, he knew the rules. Maybe he was hoping that if he didn’t personally claim the bag, it would slide through customs unnoticed. I have no idea why his flutes were destroyed along with the bamboo, but I’m afraid he forfeited his chance to explain himself and save his instruments when he failed to collect his bag upon arrival in the US.

    • James Louder says:

      According to the NPR report (see the link posted by Cjens, above) Mr. Razgui’s did not neglect to claim his bag. The bag never came out on the carousel and he reported it missing. When the bag was finally delivered to his home (a normal practice) the flutes and his stock of cane were gone. Did CBP nab the bag as it came off the plane? Did a sniffer-dog single it out? There’s still so much we don’t know about what actually happened.

      • Wondering says:

        James, yes I now see that report where he says his bag did not arrive at JFK. I hate to play devil’s advocate, but it would be very easy to file a missing bag claim even if your bag did arrive.

        So much of this will be documented as an investigation is done. American Airlines, his carrier, can prove the whereabouts of his bag when he arrived JFK – if his missing bag claim was legit or not. They will know if it actually came in on a later flight or if he just filed a missing bag report to avoid personally going through customs with it.

        Examining his customs declaration will show whether or not he declared the raw bamboo as an agricultural product,as required by law.

        I’d hope that US Customs keeps video documentation of everything they destroy.

        There is indeed quite a bit we don’t know about this. I believe the case was sensationalized before all the facts came out. If it turns out that he acted dishonestly, this will be a huge blemish on the music profession, and traveling musicians in general.

        He has everything to gain here: fame, public support, money (I think there’s a kickstarter for him), new instruments, and much much more. If he’s not telling the truth it’s going to end up looking really bad for all of us in the profession.

        • Re: “I’d hope that US Customs keeps video documentation of everything they destroy.”

          See > Stop Traveling Musicians’ Abuse!!! > December 17, 2013:

          Luggage Looters Caught in the Act | Video – ABC News

          Baggage Handlers Allegedly Caught Red Handed | Video – ABC News

          I hope the above mentioned Links of those 2 Videos are viewable outside USA! It’s AMAZING that such UGLINESS could happen to El Al, of all airlines out there!!! Why? Cause El Al is one of the Biggest Targets, as far as Terrorism!!!

          Yes, it’d be great if there were cameras and honest and smart people working at all airports around the world, but alas… that’s not going to be the case anytime soon….

          Also THANK YOU ALL for your Comments here – an Informative and Civil Discussion, as it should be! I am new to this Blog, and I already like it a lot! Thank You @ NORMAN LEBRECHT!

          As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve posted a Link to this page on my Page: Stop Traveling Musicians’ Abuse!!! – See:

          UPDATE: Read the Latest Comment on this Case under my Latest Post:

          Less than 14 hours into 2014, and I saw this…

          That Comment starts with:

          “I am watching the Discussion on this Blog…

          That way all of you here will hopefully have an even bigger audience!

          As to:

          “There is indeed quite a bit we don’t know about this. I believe the case was sensationalized before all the facts came out. If it turns out that he acted dishonestly, this will be a huge blemish on the music profession, and traveling musicians in general.”

          I hope that story is Clean/Kosher, so that it doesn’t give anyone an “Out – Ammunition” to be used against the musicians… Hey, we all need as much Good Will as we can get!!!

          But most important!

          SAFE Travels to ALL with your…

          “Axes On Board”…

          in 2014 and beyond!!!

        • James Louder says:

          Your remarks all tend to the suggestion that Mr. Razgui had something to hide, or that he was smuggling in cane that he knew was illegal. I must ask you, upon what evidence do you base your supposition? Yes, you can construct such a fictional scenario, but so what? All the facts point to his having been unaware that he was doing anything wrong–as indeed he was not. Giant cane (Arundo donax) is not a controlled species. It has been widespread in the southern US for generations.In some areas it is considered an invasive species, in others it is planted to prevent erosion of riverbanks; and lately it has been hailed as a potential bio-fuel. There is even the possibility–we don’t know for sure–that Mr. Razgui’s stock of cane was, in fact, of American origin.

  • Jonathan Dore says:

    Without asking the owner, how would Customs know the bamboo hadn’t originated in the US in the first place?

  • Most simple solution: AVOID the USA and NOT only because of their notorious custom-neanderthalers. It saves a lot of time, energy and money. Canada is by far better and in almost every sence.

  • Julia says:

    Please. All the US bashing should stop now. I’m so sorry our customs agents behaved badly–I’ve seen such behavior while flying with my oboist daughter. I also know that the Frankfurt airport agents have been pretty brutal in their own special way–as reported on this very blog. Not once did I see anyone advocating the boycott of Germany. Hyperbole does not make you look smarter.

    • This is not – at least from where I’m sitting – about “US bashing” or even about US Customs rules that might be deemed by some to be disproportionately stringent, but about the alleged unlawful behaviour of Customs officials; assuming the allegations to be justified and those actions to have taken place as alleged and been unlawful (all of which has yet to be proved), it would be no better or worse had they been committed in any other country, for it is the actions themselves and their alleged unlawfulness that is under discussion here, not the question of their occurrence on US soil.

  • Savant says:

    Sadly, in truth this may be a case of “BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION” by U.S. Customs, a discussion of this sort of thing is in a publication titled,


    Published by the Strategic Studies Institute, U. S. ARMY WAR COLLEGE.

    They do things to people and then deny that they have done or make up a false reason for doing it. This apparently is the new norm for the United States.

    As a photographer I have had processed film, originals of my artwork destroyed.