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‘Redemption songs: the street children saved by music’

The Independent

17 August 2007

Redemption songs: the street children saved by music

From the fetid slums and bullet-scarred barrios of Venezuela, one man’s vision of bringing classical works to the masses has meant salvation for the hordes of outcast children on the streets.

By Lisa Blackmore
Friday, 17 August 2007

At just 12, Legner Lacosta was on the streets. Leaving school, his mother and stepbrothers, he started hanging out in Pinto Salinas, a notorious Caracas barrio where bullet-ridden shacks pile on top of each other in a ravine nestled beside the motorway.

By 13, Legner had a crack habit and a .38 calibre gun and a regular role as a drug-dealer and thief. “I got trapped by money,” he says, “when I was high, I felt as if I were somewhere else; you clear everything out of your mind and start to invent your own world.” By 15, the police caught and beat him, and he was sent to a young offenders’ institute in Los Chorros, east Caracas, among 150 glue-sniffers and abandoned or abused children.

Forced to go cold turkey, Legner withdrew into himself. “I was bored and didn’t want to do anything,” he says. But one day, the Youth Orchestras Project turned up and he had his first meeting with a clarinet. “When the instruments arrived, the director told me there was a clarinet left. I didn’t know what it was. I was fascinated when I saw it. He taught me the first four notes. I played those four notes all day.”

By 17, Legner was back at the detention centre, but this time in a smart polo shirt and trendy thick-rimmed glasses, there to teach clarinet. “Music saved my life,” he says. “It helped me let out a lot of the anger inside. If music had not arrived, I wouldn’t be here today.” He has now moved to Germany to continue his studies.

Thousands of other underprivileged kids across Venezuela have made a similar journey. They have drifted off of the smog-filled streets where car horns and salsa compete for maximum volume into one of the many teaching centres that are cropping up all over the country’s barrios.

They are part of El Sistema (the System) or the Fundacion del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, as it’s officially known, and it’s come a long way since it started in 1975. Its flagship, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, who are headlining at the Edinburgh Festival this evening, and its example has inspired copy-cat projects in Scotland and Germany.

The deal is simple. Anyone who comes through the door showing enough enthusiasm and commitment to learn gets the instrument of their choice and free music tuition every weekday afternoon and Saturday mornings. A far cry from snotty children being dragged to a chintzy front room to learn piano, these youngsters learn to play Beethoven and Mozart by working as a family of musicians, who learn by dancing and clapping along to the music.

The programme is the brainchild of maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, a trained economist and classical musician, who rejected the elitism and economic exclusions inherent in Venezuela’s classical music scene. As the anecdote goes, in the old days someone either had to die or commit suicide for a music stand in the national orchestra to become available.

Faced with the challenge of democratising a music scene in a country whose oil wealth has not trickled down to the poor majority, Abreu designed an ambitious programme tailored to Venezuela’s social reality. The maestro decided children from every walk of life should have access to a classical music education. But the task didn’t stop with making music more accessible.

El Sistema’s main objective was, and still is, to create a new musical culture as a way to make music a way of life. A walk through the rabbit-warren corridors of the System’s headquarters in downtown Caracas reveals countless photo collages of zillions of smiling children, each brandishing their instruments. From his office overlooking the urban sprawl of the centre, Javier Moreno, general manager of the System, tells me “We’re interested in creating citizens with all the values they need to exist in society, responsibility, teamwork, respect, co-operation and work ethic. Maestro Abreu sums it up perfectly. He says an orchestra is the only group where people get together to reach agreements and they reach those agreements producing something beautiful.”

After setting up the first centres in Caracas, there are now more than 100 “nuclei” nationwide where some 250,000 young people study. And numbers are constantly rising. Children graduate, graduates become teachers, teachers set up new centres and so the cycle continues. Teaching now begins from the age of two in some centres, and others run specialist programmes for children with learning, hearing or vision difficulties, and vocational centres provide training in the manufacture and repair of instruments to insert children who have abandoned formal education into the work market. The System’s riding the crest of a wave at present, thanks to the more than £15m a year of government funding the System receives under socialist President Hugo Chavez. But the ethos of social inclusion they share with Mr Chavez’s health and educational programs is more a happy coincidence than a sign that the System has been absorbed by the “Process” (shorthand name for his Bolivarian Revolution).

In 2000, Mr Chavez took the youth orchestra to his first South American heads-of-state summit in Brazil and the musicians also gave a rendition of the national anthem at the recent launch of Tves, the state funded channel which has replaced the Chavez-critical RCTV, whose broadcasting licence was not renewed this year.

But Mr Moreno makes it clear that a cosy relationship with the government is helping the System expand its horizons. The state oil company PdVSA’s cultural branch – Centro de Arte La Estancia – recently donated £2.3m to buy musical instruments, video cameras, projectors, interactive software and mobile auditoriums for the new Centre for Social Action through Music, the next step in the expansion of the System.

Outside the vast concrete building, a stone’s throw from the youth orchestra’s most frequent venue the Teatro Teresa Carreño, hangs a huge sculpture by Jesús Soto; inside the auditorium chairs’ are covered with bright fabric which imitate a kinetic artwork by Carlos Cruz-Diez.

The 15,000m2 facility will be inaugurated by the end of 2007 and will be used as a training hub for musicians singled out for their exceptional talent. Each regional centre’s orchestra organises monthly performances to showcase potential talent for selection by scouts from the System.

Money is no object when it comes to budding stars, Mr Moreno says. “If a kid lives in Bolivar [a south-eastern state bordering the Amazon] then we’ll get him flown in once a week, give him a security guard, money for food and a hotel room so he can rehearse with the orchestra.” But centralising the crème de la crème in Caracas is not part of the plan. Members of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra are expected to share their privileges with their own, local centres. “The idea is that selected musicians transmit that new experience to the other kids. The vast majority of the orchestra work as teachers.”

Although their feet are kept firmly on the ground, being the best you can be is considered exemplary and there are some hard acts to follow. At just 17, Edicson Ruiz was selected as the youngest bass player to join the Berlin Philharmonic and maestro Abreu appointed another 17-year-old, Gustavo Dudamel, musical director of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.

It’s quite a leap from the ramshackle ranchos of Venezuela’s poor neighbourhoods to the ornate splendour of the Royal Albert Hall where they will play to a packed house on Sunday night. The orchestra, aged between 17 and 24, is El Sistema’s stellar ensemble (who are signed to Deutsche Grammophon) and contains the best of the best.

Dudamel, now 26 and the group’s musical director and conductor, is not so much the rising star as the shooting star of El Sistema. His conducting career began when he was 13 with his local orchestra in Barquisimeto, and now he’s chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony and the Los Angeles Philarmonic, and counts the Pope among his fans.

Simon Rattle describes Dudamel, as “the most astonishingly gifted conductor I’ve ever come across”. And Rattle should know. He’s been following him and the System since 2004 when he first visited Caracas. On a visit this July, he said: “What these people are doing with music is a great miracle. Words can’t express how it changes life values and awareness. At the moment, the whole world has their eyes on Venezuela and the social change that’s being achieved through the arts.”

It’s hard to keep your eyes off these young musicians. Dudamel’s crop of curly dark hair bouncing along with the orchestra’s sea of colourful tracksuits bearing the national colours leave a visual imprint that has put the orchestra in the spotlight. Their punchy performances and the heart-rending stories of social change have attracted attention across the world and Germany, Japan, Mexico, France and the US, among others, are all involved in replicating the System or supporting it in some way.

With two visits to Caracas in the past year, the Scottish Arts Council has shown the most recent interest in using the model to bring about social change in downtrodden areas. The idea is to set up a pilot scheme which will be used as part of a £120m regeneration project on the Raploch estate in Stirling. Following the orchestra’s concert today at the Edinburgh Festival, it is expected that Abreu will fine-tune the deal between the two countries.

International interest, external funding and the continued flush of high oil revenues seem set to keep the Venezuela production line of budding musicians rolling. The System is filled with confidence.

With what can only be described as jolly smugness, Mr Moreno tells me: “In Venezuela, we have a big problem. We’ve got an excess of audiences, young and old, who pack out our theatres, which is quite the opposite to Europe. Conductors from abroad can’t wait to come here. They say that Venezuela is like nowhere else in the world because every time you come you get to work with a different orchestra.”

The truth is that there is no shortage of takers who want to practise their conducting skills on the hundreds of orchestras. So if the programme’s future looks so bright, how many more Dudamels can we expect? “Ah, we’ve got plenty like him,” says Mr Moreno, with a smile. “Just you wait.”


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