Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Basset Horns On A Plane - Help Needed!

I am not a name-dropper as a rule, not having to many even to pick up in the first place. But even if I did, name-dropping would seem as irredeemably vulgar as spelling out 'TITS' with Alphabetti Spaghetti characters or being caught watching The One Show ('it's for research, honey, I swear').

That's why I won't name the passably famous musician with whom I've been exchanging mails regarding the horribly under-publicised crisis which is now seriously afflicting British musicians. Here is someone who is a poll-winner, a player known around the world and who is losing work - as are his band - because of the current ban on musical instruments being carried as hand luggage on flights from British airports. His sidemen include people who are also regular collaborators with some of the biggest names in jazz. Not a Casio-and-voice pub duo with a name like Peaches'n'Cream, Sapphire'n'Steele, Assault'n'Battery etc. No, these guys are the real thing.

He is not alone. The BBC website has been inundated by wailing, teeth-gnashing players losing money hand over fist from an inability to travel with their instruments.

Is there a problem here? You're darn tootin'. It's a commonplace that being a musician isn't a Proper Job. Even among some musicians. And the profoundly unmusical British don't really seem to give a damn that many instruments just are not suitable to be chucked in the hold.

Hypothesis: you own, or are permitted to play, a 1731 Guarneri violin. This just happens to be the way you make a living. You need to be in Volgograd tomorrow night to earn your living with your violin. Do you want a burly yob from an outsourced company specialising in 'luggage solutions' lobbing your fiddle into the hold at Heathrow, where it will be subject to subzero temperatures for several hours which ruins tuning, strings and body, and then lobbed out onto a Russian runway? Tell you what, Yuri, use it as an improvised baseball bat too, while you're about it.

Permit me to be indulgent, but I wouldn't be too keen on this, either.

In Britain's tediously unmusical climate, and its even more unmusical media, the response is common. Oh, those musicians. Won't any old violin do? No, it won't. Pianists and, at a stretch, drummers, can get away with unfamiliar kit.Arcadi Volodos or Keith Jarrett have to use different pianos in different cities. But the likes of Hilary Hahn or Emily Beynon carry their violin and flute with them, for they have built up an almost osmotic relationship and can only perform to their considerable potential when using them.

The Israeli cellist Ofra Harnoy used to joke in interviews about how El Al were touchy about her taking her instrument into the cabin in case it could be used as a weapon. What was funny in 1989 is now deadly serious for the livelihoods of many people, and would still be funny if it wasn't so farcical.

The mind boggles. My correspondent's musicians are renowned and respected soloists, and to his knowledge have no connections with any terrorist group, and certainly have never troubled the security services, beyond maybe the odd caution for double parking or falling asleep on the tube and travelling one zone too far on the London Underground. And if the double-bassist takes his instrument into the cabin, what do the BAA expect this provably innocent fellow to do with it? Leap out of his seat and say; 'now everyone keep calm... or this thing could go off', presumably.

I have visions of Julia Fischer, the ravishingly blonde, blue-eyed German violinist, being stopped on boarding at Gatwick and asked to hand over her Strad. Why? Suspected membership of the Bavarian Army of Allah's Martyrs? Or possibly the desperate and dangerous paramilitary wing of the Say No To The Oberammergau Ring Road Action Group?

The music industry - or, more damagingly, individual musicians - have a money haemorrhage because of these absurd strictures. To anyone out there who cares about music, collaring your MP is essential. To anyone who has had their instrument seriously damaged by handlers at airports, I can suggest by way of consolation only one thing - that you take it and insert it forcefully in John Reid's bottom. Double bassists to the head of the queue, please.

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