Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Music Can Tame the Wildest – Even in Medellin

Gloria Helena Rey *

MEDELLÍN, Colombia, Nov 29 2006 (IPS) - Ten years ago, even falling in love was dangerous in this city, the industrial capital of Colombia. A romance could mean death if one of the members of the couple belonged to a rival gang or neighbourhood.

As in Boccaccio’s Decameron, some lovers hid themselves to survive the violence that plagued Medellín, the capital of the northwestern department (province) of Antioquía.

Children and young people in the most depressed areas had only three choices then: to take up arms as early as the age of seven, join the gangs of drug traffickers, thieves or murderers, or hire themselves out as “sicarios” (killers) to the drug mafias.

“A plague of lead, dynamite and blood” afflicted the city then, as writer Héctor Abad Faciolince, one of Medellin’s foremost sons, described it in “Fragmentos de amor furtivo” (“Fragments of Furtive Love”).

“It was a smashed and fragmented community. There were snipers lurking in the barrios (run-down districts),” recalled Jorge Melguizo, Medellín’s secretary of culture.

The 1990s were the most violent years. In 1991, for example, over 7,000 murders were recorded, and in May alone, 582 people died of bullet wounds, an average of 20 a day. Most of the victims were under 26 years of age, according to official figures.


Such was the climate in Medellín when musician and social innovator Juan Guillermo Ocampo, inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, had the idea for a project to sow peace in the city with a network of music schools in the most violent and depressed barrios.

“He was inspired when he visited Bach’s tomb in the church of St. Thomas, in Leipzig, and he put his idea into practice in Colombia when he created the Amadeus Foundation in 1996,” said Fredy Noreña, one of the founders and now the coordinator of the network’s orchestras and choirs.

“The aim was to give children and young people from the poor barrios another choice in life, and for the schools to become a different point of contact for integrating into society,” he said.

The project was a hit. It quickly began to harvest fruits, and in 1998 it was taken under the wing of the Medellín municipal government. There are now schools in 26 barrios.

“It was seen as a wonderful opportunity for human and social development, with music as an added bonus but, above all, as a mechanism for social inclusion and for holistic education for children and young people in the poorest barrios,” Melguizo said.

“New goals were added to the initial ones, especially in the second phase of the project, with the orchestra programme, because this brought together children and young people from barrios with different cultural, family, social and economic characteristics, although they all had the common denominator of being low-income strata. This bridged social gaps and made them interact with each other,” said Noreña.

But “if anyone deserves praise, it’s the students. Without exception, thanks to the schools, they were all removed from the many problems that put them in the way of guns, drugs, or domestic violence,” said Marta Arango, the present head of the network.

No musical talent is required to enter these schools, just the desire to learn to play an instrument.

“They all start out exploring and getting to know the instruments with a repertoire of children’s songs. They begin studying classical methods, but their training allows them to play any kind of music,” explained Mauricio Balbim, the academic and administrative coordinator of the network.

“Demand is growing, because both students and parents realise that the schools aren’t just an opportunity for learning and entertainment, but also preparation for life,” he said.


One year after the project got underway, the first social effects of the schools and other initiatives began to make themselves felt. Violence began to decline. In 2005, according to official statistics, there were 700 murders, only 10 percent of the number reported in 1991.

>From January to October 2006, violent deaths were down by 13 percent compared to the same period in 2005. “The network of music schools and a range of social programmes contributed to this achievement,” Melguizo said.

In Medellín’s poor barrios there are also other networks offering free instruction in dance, literature, visual arts and theatre which, taken together, benefit more than 10,000 children and young people. But the music schools network, with its 4,140 students, was the main seed.

Eighty of its young people are now studying music at the University of Antioquía, others play in Medellín’s philharmonic orchestra, and yet others are teachers or conductors, or have gone abroad on scholarships to further their music studies.

“This means there are 4,140 fewer young people in gangs, involved in crimes and violence. Two years ago, many of them saw their future as working for security companies, but today that number is minimal because they have found an option that doesn’t involve guns,” Melguizo said.

The schools have allowed several musical prodigies and a number of professional musicians to flourish, whose talents would otherwise have been buried undiscovered under so much hatred.

“When the network started, crime and violence abounded in my barrio. I personally had a bad group of friends, and this was my lifesaver,” said Ewiter Agudelo, who started to play the saxophone at 14, before taking up the clarinet and guitar.

When he finished his secondary education, Ewiter studied music at the University of Antioquía and today, at 25, he is the principal at Belén Rincón School, one of the earliest in the network, which has 119 students.

“If the schools hadn’t been there, I’d be in jail for robbery, murder or drug trafficking. I come from a very poor background, we were hungry, we had no opportunities. I was the oldest of three brothers and my father had abandoned us. Thanks to them, I was able to survive, learn music and support my family,” he said.

“I tell my students about my experience,” so that they can see that “we can survive,” he said.

While he was talking, children and young people were playing the violin and the clarinet, or trying to get a note out of a flute. “They are my life,” said Ewiter, with the affection of a veteran schoolteacher.

The network’s organisation is a human effort. Former students like Ewiter are head teachers today, and other more recent graduates will be the teachers or head teachers in the future.

“We don’t expect all the 4,140 children we have today to become musicians, but we want them to have, above all, the opportunity for human development, while they make musical progress. In 20 years’ time, many of them will be aged 38 to 45, and we will have rehabilitated a generation through music,” Melguizo predicted.


Members of the network have travelled around Colombia and the world. In Bogotá, for example, they performed for the presidents of the five Andean nations; in Spain, before Queen Sofía at the royal Pardo Palace; before intellectuals at the Casa de las Américas (House of the Americas Culture Centre) in Madrid; and on three episodes of “El conciertazo” (“The Greatest Concert”), a highly popular children’s television show featuring classical music.

In Italy they presented a concert for the late Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square, in the Vatican, and they have also performed in Mexico City, New York and Washington.

The network was awarded the 1999 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organistion (UNESCO) prize as “The new face of Medellín for the world.” The Medellín newspaper El Colombiano called it “the cultural phenomenon of the century,” and it has received local prizes such as “El colombiano ejemplar” (“The exemplary Colombian”) in 2003, and the “Mundo de Oro” (“Golden World” prize) in 2004.

After such success, what do they look forward to in the future?

“We want to firm up teaching standards at the 26 existing schools, and create three new schools in the next few years. We also want to strengthen the two existing orchestras and the choir, so that they become the most representative of classical music in the city,” Melguizo replied.

In his opinion, the greatest achievement has been bringing classical music to students who would never otherwise have had this opportunity, and offering a place for peaceful coexistence. But, he said, “the great shortcoming is still the lack of money to make the school buildings adequate for our needs. We need more support.”

* Gloria Helena Rey has been a foreign correspondent in Latin America and Europe for 25 years. She has received several national and international distinctions. At present she writes for the newspaper El Periódico de Catalonia in Spain, and for the supplement Lecturas Fin de Semana of the Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo.

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