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Overseas musicians find a bridge to U.S.

Securing legal passage for artists touring stateside is mission of advocacy firm

Chad Swiatecki

On a Saturday in early June, the buzzed-about Australian punk band Royal Headache zoomed to their Chaos In Tejas performance at Club De Ville and played a blistering set immediately after getting off of a 20-hour flight they were supposed to have taken a week earlier.

Held up by the tangle of legal and bureaucratic obstacles that are standard operating procedure for international musicians trying to get an American work visa, the band had to cancel seven heavily anticipated shows before obtaining their paperwork. It wasn't their first time performing in America, but it was the first where they attempted to do so in full legal compliance, and in the process, they learned of the frustrations that international musicians can face while touring here.

It's a scenario Dave Dart is all too familiar with, and one he takes to heart. As the founder and director of the nonprofit advocacy group Dart Music International, he's made it his mission to make it easier for foreign musicians to perform in America and do so in a financially viable manner.

"It's an amazingly difficult process because our government has to make sure the people coming here are who they say they are, first of all, but then it takes things like letters of support from industry people and international press to prove that they're a band of international scale," says Dart, 47. "It takes five months to get done, and any sort of attorney or for-profit agency is going to charge at least $5,000 for something that's much more limited in scope than what we do. Most places will laugh if you ask them to do what we give to artists."

Since its formal founding in 2008, DMI has served as direct advocate and sponsor for 25 international artists or bands seeking to tour America, and offered assistance to more than 100 artists from 37 countries in the form of guidance on touring profitably and featuring them at DMI- affiliated concerts and events.

The price tag to have Dart and his volunteer team of lawyers and other music professionals work with a band is $3,000, almost all of which covers application fees and other related expenses.

Dart admits his is an odd calling, which grew out of his work in the late '90s with the South by Southwest music festival when year after year bands from other countries either had to drop out or mount greatly scaled back tours because of the lengthy and difficult visa process.

"There are easier ways to get involved in music, I'll admit, but this is a culmination of a lot of interests I've had in my life," says Dart, who holds a master's in international relations from Boston University. "I've always been interested in exotic things, different cultures and music. (DMI) has brought all those things together, and I love all the music I get to hear, and I get to meet and help all these people from all over the world."

The group's thrust makes it a sort of musical United Nations each year during SXSW: In 2011, it featured artists from all six inhabited continents every day for six days in a row. Plans for a similar run this year fell through because of travel difficulties for some artists — it even happens when DMI flexes it muscles — but a scaled-back slate of shows and happy hours still highlighted many artists visiting from abroad.

Once a month for his weekly concert series at local club 219 West, Dart partners with the similarly motivated artist group House of Songs to feature an international artist (this Wednesday, it's Gina Chavez and Kalu James). And this month Dart began publishing the Dart Dispatch, an online magazine and newsletter focused on its affiliated artists, events, and news and information of interest to international musicians and their fans. (Go to http://dart musicinternational.org.)

An almost tireless supporter of visiting musicians trying to get their music heard, Dart connects them with local resources whenever he can and will get directly involved to help with music, promotion or whatever needs to be done.

"He got me into one of his friend's studio for two days to get my music done for South by Southwest and then helped calm me down and get through it when I was really nervous about getting done in time," says Jabu Mbara, an urban music artist from the Kingdom of Lesotho in South Africa who is also a student at Huston-Tillotson University. "He is very passionate about getting the people he works with heard and will sacrifice a lot to make it happen."

Of late, Dart also has worked closely with Austin singer Kalu James, a native of Nigeria who immigrated in 2001 and recalls the frustrations of his own two-year wait to become a U.S. citizen even with family here who acted on his behalf. For a visiting musician with few stateside resources, having an advocate like Dart and DMI working on their behalf can be vital, he says.

"Imagine you get this 60-page booklet you have to go through, when you probably don't speak that language, and trying to make sense of it and get everything done," James says. "The idea that there's this guy and this group that will take up your cause to help you come here to play your music and help make some money doing it ... that's pretty amazing."