curiosity, History

Passports for Pianos and Violins


In the old days, no one really bothered about endangered species and wild life protection. On the contrary, rich and powerful, indulged in hunting expeditions, killing scores of animals to their heart’s content. In those days hunting was considered a rich man’s sport. Some animal body parts like ivory and tortoise shells were commonly used for many decorative and other applications. Billiard balls used to be manufactured from ivory. On the same lines, musical instruments of the yesteryear, had components made from certain animal body parts. Piano keys used to be made from ivory and Violin bows were crafted from tortoise shells.

Many of these musical instruments from yesteryear, not only still survive, but are eagerly wanted by many performing artists for accompaniment during their performances around the world. There is a small hitch. The 178-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) formed by nations of the world has not only banned use of animal body parts being used in future manufacture of things like billiard balls and musical instruments; it also recommends its member nations to exercise tight control at its ports and airports to see that no such instruments are imported or exported. This creates a great difficulty for the performance artists, who want these instruments to be brought in the country, where they plan to perform. Some of these artists travel extensively for concerts throughout the world very frequently and with a very tight schedule. Moving these vintage musical instruments available to them from one country to other, involves time-consuming paperwork and bears a continuous risk of seizure. Many owners of such vintage musical instruments have even indulged in drastic measures, such as removing ivory keys from pianos.

A Stradivarius or Strad is one of the violins, cellos, and other stringed instruments built by members of the Stradivari (Stradivarius) family, particularly Antonio Stradivari, during the 17th and 18th centuries. These are considered as ultimate musical instruments because according to their reputation, the quality of their sound has defied attempts to explain or equal it. Japan’s Nippon Music Foundation has in its proud possession one such Stradivarius violin and lends it to renowned performers for their performances around the world.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), have recently come out with a solution for this problem. They have now agreed to create a system of certificates for such instruments, which currently need a new permit from each country every time they travel. These new certificates would be like the multi-entry visa passports issued for that particular for instrument The pre-condition would be that the instrument must have been made before international trade restrictions for the relevant species came into effect. These passports for musical instruments would be valid for three years for non-commercial movements.

Kazuko Shiomi, president of Japan’s Nippon Music Foundation, says that the move would end a major headache for international musicians who want to borrow its priceless Stradivarius for their performances. The US National Association of Music Merchants has welcomed the passport scheme as “a good first step” towards making it easier for musical instruments to cross borders. Another British expert specializing in antique pianos says: “No one wants to harm elephants but it seems a little ridiculous to have to apply for a CITES (permit) for a 120–year old piano,” Very true!

Perhaps this is likely to be the first instance, when non living entities are being issued multi-entry, Visa-Passports.

(First published in Aksharadhool on 14 March 2013)

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About chandrashekhara

I am a retired electronics engineer. I am interested in writing, reading books. Other hobbies include Paper models, wooden fret work and social networking.

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