Ideas

El Sistema: How the power of music helped change Venezuelan lives

In 1975 the Venezuelan economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu started an after-school music programme for street kids in Caracas. El Sistema became a revolutionary movement that has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children- and also helped create a few generations of musicians and a nation of music lovers.
Two pupils carry their instruments as they arrive for a music lesson in a school in La Rinconada neighbourhood in Caracas on October 16, 2008 (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1975 the Venezuelan economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu started an after-school music programme for street kids in Caracas. It was primarily a social action project- how to solve a problem of lawlessness and aimlessness among youth — but it was also about encouraging a love of music for its own sake. El Sistema became a revolutionary movement that has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children — and also helped create a few generations of musicians and a nation of music lovers. Jose Antonio Abreu died last month, and we're re-broadcasting this documentary about El Sistema as a tribute to a great visionary. The documentary is called Playing for Their Lives. **This episode was originally broadcast on October 23, 2017.

Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings.- Jose Antonio Abreu

Jose Antonio Abreu thought that an orchestra was the best example of how to teach young people the values and the necessities of living in society itself- the development of individual skill, the necessity of working together for a common goal, self-discipline, the appreciation of something outside of yourself, learning how to follow a leader. 

The impact of El Sistema has been huge in Venezuela — over 400 centres across the country have taught more than 700,000 students over the years, and apart from the social impact — teaching citizenship, steering children away from gangs and street violence — there has also been a profound cultural impact: a few generations of music lovers, and a cadre of musicians who now play in orchestras all over the world, the star being El Sistema graduate Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"Driven by a vision that the world of classical music can help improve the lives of Venezuela's children, he created the music network El Sistema, which has given hundreds of thousands the tools to leave poverty. José Antonio Abreu's successful creation has promoted traditional values, like respect, fellowship and humanity. His achievement shows us what is possible when music is made the common ground and thereby part of people's everyday lives. Simultaneously, a new hope for the future has been given children and parents, as well as politicians. The vision of José Antonio Abreu serves as a model to us all." – From the 2009 citation for the Polar Music Prize, awarded to Jose Antonio Abreu by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.

Voices heard in this episode:

  • Lila Vivas, musician.
  • Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema.
  • Marly Calderon, musician.
  • Eduardo Mendez, Executive Director El Sistema.
  • Sergio Sanchez, musician.
  • Maibel Troia, Choral Director.
  • Jon Medina, musician.
  • Carlos Gonzales, musician.



**This episode is produced by Philip Coulter.

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