A raid on the Gibson guitar factory Wednesday by U.S. federal authorities makes me, and a lot of other amateur and professional musicians, very nervous.
Many of us own vintage musical instruments made out of materials that are now subject to environmental protection. We are worried that these precious instruments could be confiscated by overzealous border agents if we travel internationally.
Guitar-playing snowbirds who head south with an old Martin guitar made of nowprotected Brazilian rosewood could have their loved and valuable instrument taken away from them unless they have proper documentation on its age, or even a permit if it contains binding, bridges or other parts made from now-banned species, unless those parts are old enough to qualify for an exemption.
The implications of the raid also raise fears for new instruments made from exotic woods, which produce varying tonal qualities depending on species. If you cannot prove that the wood has been ethically sourced, it could be pried out your loving hands. Even if the wood is sustainably certified, the Gibson raid shows that you could still run afoul of the law.
In the raid - the second on Gibson in the past two years - several pallets of Indian ebony, used to make fretboards, were seized when armed agents executed four search warrants on Gibson factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville.
Gibson, the storied maker of the Les Paul electric and iconic instruments like the ES-150 jazz guitar played by Charlie Christian, has been a leader in corporate responsibility on ethically sourced hardwoods. The company's chairman and CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, issued a strongly worded statement defending his company's manufacturing policies.
"The wood the government seized Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier," he said.
The council is a notfor-profit organization established to promote responsible management of the world's forests. "FSC controlled wood standards require, among other things, that the wood not be illegally harvested and not be harvested in violation of traditional and civil rights," said Juszkiewicz.
So what did Gibson do wrong? According to the company, the U.S. Justice Department indicated that the wood was confiscated because it was not finished by Indian workers, in violation of the department's interpretation of Indian law. In other words, the tree may have been harvested in India, but shipped elsewhere to be fashioned into blank fretboards. But the Indian government, Gibson says, never complained.
If that's the basis of the action, how is the average person to possibly know where the ebony fretboard on their instrument was made? Without proof of every component part of an instrument, can a violin, guitar, mandolin or other instrument be confiscated at a border crossing?
"There's a lot of anxiety, and it's well justified," John Thomas, a law professor and blues and ragtime guitarist, told the Wall Street Journal.
One option is composite glass-and-carbon-fibre guitars like those made by RainSong. They are lightweight, impervious to climactic change and have surprisingly good sound, but to me, lack the rich tone of a wood guitar.
The controlled trade in exotic woods affects many instruments, from flutes to violins. Brazilian Pernambuco has been the preferred wood of violin bow makers ever since Francoise Xavier Tourte discovered its tonal properties in the 1780s. Pernambuco has given the classical music world the sound it has loved for more than 200 years.
The wood was excluded from being banned several years ago when bow makers rallied by setting up the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative, which raises money to plant Pernambuco seedlings.
The treaties and the interpretation of laws governing trade in exotic wood have become so complex that even enforcement officials are confused. Fretboard Journal, a guitar magazine, even stumped an enforcement official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when it published a lengthy article on the issue in 2008.
"If the USFWS law enforcement spokesperson doesn't know, how can they expect us to know?" the author wrote. The magazine quoted vintage-guitar guru George Gruhn of Nashville: "Look, this thing is a nightmare. It's cumbersome, illogical and nearly unintelligible."
If an instrument is confiscated, the onus is on the owner to prove compliance. It has musicians everywhere singing the blues.