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CULTURE-URUGUAY: Music to All Ears

MONTEVIDEO, Aug 13 2009 (IPS) - Taking in a classical music concert, learning to make films or attending a literary workshop are no longer activities reserved for the elite in the Uruguayan capital. In addition to the existing initiatives offered by the city government, a new project is under way to promote cultural production and recreation among the poor.

 Credit: Comisión de Cultura Zonal 7

Credit: Comisión de Cultura Zonal 7

“Our motto is to improve cultural quality alongside the local residents. We don’t regard ourselves as ‘cultural experts’ coming to teach people culture; what we want is for all of us to become cultured together,” Sebastián Domínguez, a city councillor and a member of the Cultural Commission at Zonal Community Centre 7 (CCZ-7) in Montevideo, told IPS.

The CCZs are local branches of the Intendencia Municipal de Montevideo (IMM), the city government, which provide decentralised services and foment direct participation by local residents in neighbourhood affairs.

“We call what we do ‘education through action,’ because although we have taken some specific training courses, we acquire our experience essentially through the work we do,” Domínguez said.

The Cultural Commission, which covers the middle-class seafront neighbourhoods of Buceo, Malvín and Punta Gorda, has two main cornerstones: decentralising the city’s cultural activities in order to bring them closer to local residents, and promoting artists from within the local community.

“The idea is to form and train groups of people who will then carry out cultural activities in their respective neighbourhoods,” Domínguez said.

As well as bringing cultural events closer to where people live, the goal is to foster home-grown popular artistic and cultural expressions, often performed on the streets, according to the principle that culture is a very broad, inclusive concept.

The Commission, which is financially supported by an agreement with the IMM, recently organised an exhibition of antique toys with the help of collectors. Schools were invited to the exhibit, which included “puppets up to 300 years old,” Domínguez said.

Film series are also screened in small movie houses, and critics are invited to comment, together with the audience, on the works shown. Courses on film directing are offered too, “but our biggest strengths are choirs and rock bands,” he said.

There are many amateur choirs in the neighbourhood, and stimulating them is a good way of “supporting collective activity, group work and participation by people who aren’t professional artistes,” he said.

Tango, “murga” (a genre of popular musical theatre associated with Carnival in Uruguay), and “candombe” (a drum-based musical genre with African roots), play an important role in the Commission’s work, but so does classical music.

Solo instrumentalists give recitals, and the Montevideo Philharmonic Orchestra has performed several concerts.

Local residents also have the opportunity to hear foreign musical groups or bands that rarely perform in the neighbourhoods, such as Mexican mariachi bands or jazz orchestras, and to attend art exhibitions or lectures on the environment and sexual health.

A human right

Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Article 22 further stipulates that everyone “is entitled to realisation, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organisation and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

In another step forward, the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC) established that everyone in the states party has a right to participate in the cultural life of his or her country.

“Each state party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures,” the ICESC says.

However, “cultural rights have often been treated as if they were ‘second-class rights’,” the National Director of Culture, Hugo Achugar, told IPS.

As a result, the Ministry of Education and Culture announced in May the creation of its department of Cultural Citizenship, intended “to ensure democratic access by the entire population to cultural goods and services.”

The new project incorporates existing programmes in other state departments which had similar purposes, promoting participation and cultural production in specific sectors, such as teenagers and young people, slum dwellers, the prison population and psychiatric patients confined to hospitals.

Literary and visual arts workshops are being organised in prisons, museum visits are arranged for schoolchildren, and cultural cottage industries are being set up. These are small businesses where unemployed people learn crafts like making dolls or theatre costumes, “not only for art’s sake, but also as income-earning activities,” Achugar said.

The aim of these projects, according to Cultural Citizenship authorities, is to include especially the most vulnerable groups in society, while fomenting and respecting cultural diversity as “a factor of social inclusion, national identity and the construction of sovereignty.”

In fact, the socioeconomic characteristics of certain population groups in Uruguay may influence their participation in cultural expressions.

Achugar told IPS that although one cannot rightly speak of a “culture of poverty,” there are however “certain patterns of consumption and behaviour typical of a subculture” in some poor neighbourhoods in Montevideo. From highbrow to lowbrow

Achugar is one of the authors of a study on “Culture and Poverty: Imaginaries and Cultural Consumption in Slums in Montevideo”, published in late 2007 by the state University of the Republic, which documented the consumption patterns characteristic of poor neighbourhoods.

The report concluded, for instance, that most people living in slums recognise Uruguayan cultural personalities who have a high media profile, but are less familiar with some illustrious figures of cultural tradition who are nationally revered.

Among the cultural icons selected for the survey were poet Juana de Ibarbourou, writer Horacio Quiroga, writer and politician José Enrique Rodó, and artists Pedro Figari, Joaquín Torres García and Juan Manuel Blanes.

Asked whether they recognised and could identify these people, 53 percent of interviewees recognised Ibarbourou, but the rest were recognised by less than 50 percent of respondents.

At the same time, figures within the contemporary “high literary culture” were presented for recognition: writers Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1984), Mario Benedetti and Idea Vilariño who both died this year, as well as people with a strong current media presence, such as musicians Rubén Rada and Jorge Drexler, and actresses China Zorrilla and Natalia Oreiro.

Benedetti was recognised by 43 percent of respondents, Onetti by 41 percent, Quiroga by 39 percent, Blanes by 36 percent and Torres García and Figari by 28 percent. Only 20 percent of interviewees recognised Rodó, and three percent recognised Vilariño.

Rada was correctly identified by nearly 70 percent, and Fata Delgado, a cumbia singer, by over 65 percent. Carnival dancer Marta Gularte (1919-2002) was recogised by 70 percent, Drexler by 60 percent, Oreiro by 90 percent and Zorrilla by 80 percent of interviewees.

Questions referring to “cultural capital” and “cultural infrastructure” or equipment found that 37.8 percent of interviewees said they owned more than 10 books, while 26 percent did not own a single book; and 52 percent said they had more than 11 compact discs or audio cassettes at home, while 19.4 percent said they did not possess a single CD or tape. Over 21 percent said they owned a musical instrument.

In contrast, 90 percent of respondents had a radio or tape recorder, nearly 91 percent had a colour TV, and nearly 28 percent had cable TV.

Those with CD-playing audio equipment were 54.4 percent of the sample, nearly 42 percent owned a camera, 36.3 percent had a video or DVD player, 27.4 percent had personal stereos and 11 percent had a computer. Seventy-three percent said they had landline telephones. They were not asked about cellular phones.

This “partly explains the high percentages recognising personalities with a media presence,” the study concluded. “On the other hand, it confirms what was already known – and is valid for the whole of the country’s population – that is, the overwhelming predominance of the audiovisual media.”

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