As a sociologist, I often roamed the dirt tracks of the poor sections of my hometown Caracas, and it seemed to me that from the open windows, I would always hear someone singing or strumming the Venezuelan four-string guitar, el cuatro, or see some fellow unselfconsciously walking by whistling or singing. Later on, reading the memoirs of an English officer of Simón Bolívar’s British Legion that fought for the Venezuelan Independence Revolution, I was struck by his observation that at the bivouacs after the day’s march, as the men sat around the campfires, they created music. “Most of the natives are musicians and singers,”1 he wrote.
Today, 200 years later, the officer’s observation is solidly backed by the achievements of the extraordinary Venezuelan music program, El Sistema, which today has 300 centers, 310,000 students, and 500 orchestras in the country. Its hallmark is the excellence of its musicians, foremost of whom is Gustavo Dudamel, undoubtedly the world’s most exciting classical music conductor.
El Sistema is a remarkable music and antipoverty program that was created in 1975 by Maestro José Antonio Abreu, who was determined to improve social justice through the balm of music. He started out with only 11 young musicians who shared his vision to give the poor and marginalized access to music education. Over 70 percent of the students in El Sistema come from poor families.2
A typical student in El Sistema comes from a barrio, a very poor neighborhood. He or she attends a nucleus after school, taught by an older student of El Sistema at no charge and on an instrument supplied for free. There are groups for preschoolers, school-age children, and teenagers. Participants learn how to play an instrument and how to perform in an orchestra. The child’s family is important to the success of El Sistema and is considered part of the program. Children progress through the program to higher standards, including the National Simón Bolívar Orchestra, which plays all over the world. (Go to www.youtube.com to see a video of the orchestra’s performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall.)
In 1975 oil-rich Venezuela was a goose that laid golden eggs for the upper classes. From 1935–1998, this petroleum-rich country had a poverty level of 60 percent, with almost one-third of the population suffering from extreme poverty.3 The majority of the people were thus excluded from the benefits of oil riches; that exclusion was economic, political, and also cultural. The arts were seen as the reserve of only the wealthy, with the poor excluded from museums, galleries, theaters, and music performances. Classical music was especially seen as the purview of the privileged.4
Maestro Abreu struggled for the necessary backing from successive governments, never obtaining from them the recognition and funds that his program deserved. It is a wonder, however, that even under those circumstances, his program and musicians survived.
That all changed with the election of President Hugo Chávez.
Today there is a happy convergence between the values of El Sistema and those of the Chávez government, including the antipoverty programs Chávez inspired.5 In 13 years, they have reduced poverty to 27.8 percent and extreme poverty to 7.3 percent, an astounding achievement for any developing country.6 El Sistema now receives 90 percent of its funding from the Venezuelan government. The opposition to President Chávez has bitterly attacked El Sistema because of this government support,7,8 even though the positive results of the program are beyond question.
Maestro Abreu organized his program into a series of centers, or nuclei, in different localities. Music was not taught as a “training session” but as a way of life. Young people were made to feel they had joined a sort of family that would support and encourage them to reach higher standards. Abreu believes in the young people and says, “Culture for the poor cannot be poor culture.”9 Children learn to work as a team and to have self-discipline. Egotistic individualism is not encouraged, but creativity and personal development are.
The heart of the music program is acceptance and support: the child who wants to join is accepted unconditionally without any filtering or auditions. The instruments that are provided are not kept in the school, but entrusted to the child to take home and care for. One ten-year-old boy admitted that he had to have his cello right next to his bed in his humble bedroom because he could not sleep without it.10
El Sistema also includes choirs, and one choir in particular has stunned the musical world: it is composed of children who are deaf, blind, or otherwise disabled. They participate with their hands, wearing white gloves, as they signal the words of the songs. World-famous opera singer Placido Domingo was so moved watching this choir for the first time that tears rolled down his cheeks.10
Abreu believes that “the most holy of human rights is the right to art.” His student, Gustavo Dudamel, former conductor of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, now conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. He is now disseminating the idea that music is a human right in the world of classical music, where he is a major player. Dudamel is also promoting El Sistema in Los Angeles.
In an orchestra, as in a family, fellow students are supporters, not rivals. The idea of music as an inherent human right constitutes a cultural revolution that may very well save the future of classical music itself.
El Sistema has renewed music education by bringing in the talents and enthusiasm of those who had been excluded. It has brought a fresh wind to the musty halls where elites had wanted to keep classical music prisoner. And it all started in Venezuela, where revolution is a very good thing.