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DEVELOPMENT-BRAZIL: Music Can Conquer Poverty

Mario Osava

SAO CAETANO, Brazil, May 29 2006 (IPS) - Mozart’s music has transformed the small, impoverished town of Sao Caetano, a forgotten backwater in the state of Pernambuco in northeast Brazil, ever since its children’s orchestra began to win national and international fame, 13 years ago.

The Banda Sinfonica do Agreste, better known as Os Meninos de Sao Caetano (the Children of Sao Caetano), even though they are now adults, has performed in Brazil’s top concert halls and in several European countries since the mid-1990s.

It is the most visible face of a project that includes the Music and Life Foundation, which provides musical education and help with schoolwork for 200 children.

The architect of this extraordinary achievement, Mozart Vieira, has as his given name the surname of the legendary Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus, indicating the passion for music he inherited from his family.

“He changed my life and my family’s mentality,” Maria Lauciete, 30, told IPS. She was attracted to the choir formed by “maestro” Mozart 22 years ago. Having recently graduated from the university, she now teaches oboe at the Foundation, and has taught singing classes for a group organised by a private company for the last six years.

Born into a poor rural family, Lauciete had to work in order to finance her studies, which also earned her a degree in Portuguese language. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said, and now she is fulfilling her vocation through music teaching.

She had to overcome resistance from her parents, who “were against music as a profession.” The local culture relegates women to “domestic work or teaching” as the only options. And classical training “made matters worse,” but gradually her family grew to accept her, and now one of her brothers is learning the clarinet.

Lauciete is now one of the 17 members of the Banda Sinfonica do Agreste. The original children, now over 25 years old, are respected musicians who play or teach in institutions in other cities and study at universities, but come back to the Foundation at weekends to teach classes on a voluntary basis and to rehearse together.

Another example is Iris Vieira do Nascimento, the only woman to play the trumpet in a Brazilian symphony orchestra. She came first in a competition for the Recife Orchestra, Vieira told IPS with pride. Recife is the capital of Pernambuco, 150 kilometres from Sao Caetano.

This first generation of musicians trained by Vieira are the source of most of the Foundation’s funding, donating income received from the orchestra, or earned personally from other work. They are loyal disciples and the mainstay of the initiative. “I could go abroad to get a master’s degree, but I would always come back to Sao Caetano,” said Lauciete.

The band, which initially had 35 members, was reduced to half that size to make possible performances in distant locations, by cutting travel and hotel expenses, the maestro explained.

His dream is that the Foundation’s survival and expansion may be assured, through a sponsor or another source of funding. The building can accommodate 200 students, but every year applications are received from 400 to 500 candidates, he said.

Lauciete, too, longs for a reliable income. “I can’t keep on volunteering all my life,” and besides, the Foundation could provide meals for its students, nearly all of whom are very poor, she said.

The 13-year-old Foundation gave structural form to the social and musical work begun by Vieira in 1978, when he was 15. Inspired by his grandfather – a musician and philanthropist û he was first moved to help poor children in his town on seeing that children’s coffins were buried almost daily in the nearby cemetery. “Sometimes I gave food to the poor although it was scarce at home,” he said.

The idea of using music came to him when he noticed how even the most rebellious children were fascinated when he played his guitar. He organised a choir, performed in low-income neighbourhoods, and from then on worked on his project every day of the week..

Later he realised that he needed further studies in order to go on teaching, and for 10 years he attended the Recife Music Conservatory and a distant university where he graduated in the flute. At present he is working on a master’s degree in orchestra directing.

The Music and Life Foundation is part of the government Programme to Eradicate Child Labour, and takes in dozens of children whose families receive financial assistance to remove their children from work and keep them in school. “Its social importance is well recognised,” the municipal secretary for Social Assistance in Sao Caetano, Lucia Marquim, told IPS.

Musical education has created new employment opportunities for the poorest people in this town, as well as “making good citizens,” she emphasised. Many of the Foundation’s former students now play in military bands or for other institutions.

A process of official recognition as a vocational secondary school by the state government of Pernambuco is in motion. This may open new avenues for financing its activities. For the time being, the education it offers is extracurricular, and its students must also attend and be in good standing at regular schools.

Music improves scholastic achievement, said Maria José dos Santos, 17, who is learning the oboe with Lauciete. She says she “knew some uncontrollable children who became disciplined and interested” in classes.

They do “amazing, humanitarian work,” promoting “people’s redemption” through music, said film-maker Paulo Thiago, who has decided to make a film about maestro Mozart’s work. It will be a work of fiction, but “based on real events.” The screenplay is almost finished and filming is scheduled for the last quarter of this year.

Part of the film will deal with the injustice experienced by Vieira 11 years ago, when he was accused of being a party to the kidnapping of one of his students, who was found unconscious, drugged and bearing marks of violence.

The strongmen of local politics were responsible for that reaction, out of jealousy and fear of the popularity of the maestro, whom they saw as a potential adversary, according to the film-maker, who carried out extensive research into the incident. Thiago directed “Coisa Mais Linda (Prettiest Thing),” about the bossa nova music movement.

Vieira faced opposition to his work right from the start. “They said he was crazy,” and no one believed he could succeed, said José Fernandes da Silva, a local shopkeeper, in whose view “living in the Northeast (of Brazil) is an art,” because of the high poverty levels and lack of jobs.

But the students who were “rescued from the dirt” are now able to lead their own lives and have houses of their own, unlike the maestro who lives in a house belonging to his father, he said.

Silva, a member of the Foundation’s board, accompanied the orchestra on a recent tour of France. “Without Mozart’s music, I would never have travelled abroad,” he acknowledged.

Music has brought Sao Caetano fame in Brazil and around the world, attracting tourists, noted Caetano Vieira, the town’s secretary of Culture, Tourism and Sports. He announced that 60 French tourists would soon be arriving, because they wanted to visit the “city of music.”

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