Civil Society, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MUSIC-VENEZUELA: “The System” Continues to Collect Accolades

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Apr 13 2009 (IPS) - “Another prize…let’s go get ice cream to celebrate,” said their mother, and the boys jumped up to get their shoes on and head out for their reward, as the TV set in their tiny living room broadcast the news about the tribute paid at OAS headquarters to the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

The stars of “the system” – shorthand for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela (FESNOJIV) – played last week at a special ceremony held by the OAS (Organisation of American States) in Washington, where they had once performed 14 years ago.

The network of youth orchestras is a state-funded programme that runs local music schools where half a million children have received musical education since 1975.

The education and instruments provided at “the system’s” after-school centres around the country are free. The programme is aimed at transforming the lives of the country’s poorest children by keeping them away from the drug and gang-infested streets.

Although “the system” has dozens of youth orchestras around the country today, the most promising students can try out for the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, which has performed all over the world.

Gladys and Víctor Jiménez saw the OAS tribute as another “prize,” which they celebrated with their sons, 14-year-old Héctor and 11-year-old Génesis, who are in the youth orchestra that meets at the San Pedro parish church on the south side of Caracas.

“It’s been wonderful, because it has helped them to be studious and disciplined. They are going to be upstanding, decent citizens, with confidence in what they are and what they can do,” Gladys, who is concierge of a small building on the parish grounds, told IPS.

The 180 young musicians who a few years ago were like Héctor or Génesis received a lengthy standing ovation from the audience of 2,600 people at the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, where the OAS organised the concert in homage to “the system.”

Orchestra music is in essence a participatory activity that requires teamwork towards a shared goal, which makes its participants individuals sensitive to others, something that is essential to democracy, said OAS secretary general José Miguel Insulza.

The orchestra was led by 27-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, who himself played the violin in the first Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra concert at the Kennedy Centre 14 years ago.

Insulza delivered an OAS plaque and a set of flags from the Americas in recognition of José Antonio Abreu, the creator of “the system”, who began by bringing together 11 boys and girls to practice instruments in an underground parking lot. The next day, 25 kids showed up, and after that 46, and then 75. Today, the programme has been replicated in 24 countries throughout the hemisphere, including Cuba.

In 2000, the OAS launched the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, and now has a classical music programme for young people at risk in the Caribbean.

Also inspired by “the system”, the Andean Development Corporation – the financial arm of the Andean Community trade bloc (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru) – has helped create a system of youth choirs.

Children’s and youth orchestras are an excellent model and school for social life. For youngsters and children, making music together entails close coexistence and a shared quest and effort for perfection and excellence, based on rigorous discipline and harmony, Abreu commented upon receiving the OAS homage.

In a conversation some time ago with IPS, Abreu said “it would be a mistake for someone to see this system as a merely artistic or cultural programme….This is an initiative against exclusion and poverty and for human development, which are also the aims of the Venezuelan state and the international community.

“Poverty means loneliness, sadness and anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork. For most of the kids we work with, this is a route to a dignified, decent life,” he said.

For Gladys Jiménez, who earns the minimum wage of 372 dollars a month and lives rent-free in the small parish concierge apartment, and Víctor, who finds temporary work when he can as a labourer or courier, the orchestra shows their sons “a route of bettering themselves that goes above and beyond the letters and numbers they learn at school, and which will be very useful to them.”

“The system” also holds out a lifeline to kids who are already in trouble, like Lerner Acosta, who plays the clarinet in the Caracas youth orchestra and teaches music at a conservatory.

Acosta had been arrested nine times for theft and drug possession before “the system” offered him an instrument.

“At first I thought it was a joke. Nobody would trust someone like me not to steal a clarinet like that, but it was for real,” Acosta said.

One of the best-known products of “the system” is Edicson Ruiz, who at the age of nine was working part-time as a bag boy in a supermarket to complement his mother’s meagre wages, but by 17 had become the youngest ever double bass player in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

The pioneering classical music programme for children has produced many success stories, six of which were presented in “Tocar y luchar” (To Play and to Fight), a documentary on “the system” produced by Alberto Arvelo, who was himself a musician in one of the orchestras as a child and teenager.

And “Maroa”, a film by Solveig Hoogesteijn, is about a young girl who is rescued from a life of crime by joining one of the orchestras.

Meanwhile, “the system” just goes on and on producing success stories – and winning applause.

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