Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A history of music, poverty and hope

 (This article was originally written for Th!nk about it: Developing world)

I feel the urge to confess, before I say anything, that I’m prouder than pride itself to share my nationality with Gustavo Dudamel. I have yet to meet a venezuelan who doesn’t get goosebumps when s/he hears that Dudamel is conducting the Gothenburg Symphony, or the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
However, we have no reason at all to feel proud of something we haven’t been involved with, but that’s our idiosincracy: we stand for Spain or Brazil when there is a World Cup, but we feel our blood running stronger when La Vinotinto is winning.
We’re so passionate, you guys.
Well, Gustavo is our main symbol (national symbol, I dare to say) of El Sistema, which is how we familiarly call the National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela (Fesnojiv by its Spanish acronym). El Sistema was founded by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, and it was originally called Social Action for Music. Its goal is to use music in order to protect childhood through training, rehabilitation and prevention of criminal behaviour.
The main objective of the program: rescuing children and teenagers in extreme poverty situations, who are in higher risk to fall into drugs and crime, because of their environment. It is calculated that El Sistema has reached over two millions people by now, and while trying to achieve that goal, José Antonio Abreu has discovered and formed several extraordinary talented young people, like Dudamel itself, or Edicson Ruiz, who now plays at the Berlin Philarmonic Orchestra, or Natalia Luis-Bassa, who now is is the Principal Conductor of the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra, the Haffner Orchestra in Lancaster and the Hallam Sinfonia in Sheffield. El Sistema has received governmental economic support since 1977, surviving over six changes of president, and all the political fluctuations of an inestable country such as Venezuela, but has also received grants and prizes, including a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank in 2007.
Right now, there are around 200.000 young people involved and benefited by the system. From those, a vast majority come from the slums of cities like Caracas, where violence is an everyday issue. (This very last long weekend (April 17-19th) only within Caracas and Valencia (the city where I live) there were over sixty violent deaths. Venezuela has an average of 54 murders in every 100.000 inhabitants, around two violent deaths each hour.)
A lot of this kids have lived extreme situations of violence, poverty and abuse. But when they take an instrument in their hands, all that seems to dissappear. 

 Abreu, Dudamel and El Sistema itself, have received so many prizes and recognitions that it becomes futil to try to list them. The best recognition, however, may be the desire of several other countries to replicate the achievements of the system (Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brasil, Canadá (Calgary, Moncton, Ottawa), Colombia, Corea, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Escocia, Estados Unidos (Avon, Baltimore, Birmingham, Charleston, Chicago, Durham, Fort Wayne, Hampton, Hilton Head Island, Jackson, Los Ángeles, Nueva York, North Oakland, Pasadena, San Antonio, San Diego), Guatemala, Honduras, Inglaterra (Lambeth, Liverpool, Norwich, Islington), Jamaica, La India, México, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Perú, Portugal, Puerto Rico, República Dominicana, Trinidad y Tobago, y Uruguay.)
In 2009, José Antonio Abreu received a TED Prize for his amazing work. If you are going to see just one video, I beg you to watch the humble, brilliant discourse of  "the maestro who's transformed the lives of tens of thousands of kids... through classical music".

Read at The Guardian: Land of hope and glory.

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