At the 2007 BBC Proms under the conductorship of Gustavo Dudamel, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra performed “Mambo” while dancing in shell jackets emblazoned with the Venezuelan flag. Suddenly the elitism and pomp normally associated with classical music was blown away and everyone became obsessed with the developmental possibilities of El Sistema.
This is a Venezuelan initiative, created by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, whereby government funding is invested into youth orchestra programmes to keep children off the street and in education and to give people of all social and economic background equal access to participation in music. Under the motto “To play and to fight”, El Sistema remains a huge source of national pride throughout Venezuela.
The media exposure of El Sistema rippled inspiration and as similar projects started sprouting up across the world, journalists and commentators highly proclaimed that this new sensation was the future of classical music. But suddenly this praise turned sour and this reliance on government funding became a source of criticism. Classical music “bad boy” Igor Toronyi-Lalic vehemently criticised Chavez’s monopolisation El Sistema’s publicity while simultaneously depicting Abreu as a “Chavez-arse-licker” who simply “imposes the Western classical canon on street kids”. It is important to note that Toronyi-Lalic’s argument is limited by some important inaccuracies aptly explained in a response article by voice-of-reason guru Marshall Marcus.
Inflammatory language aside, Toronyi-Lalic raised important points to consider when assessing any social uplift initiative that has the potential to do more harm the good: the possibility of a Western / Upper Class imperialism, the possible futility of using idealistic cultural activities to solve serious economic problems, the utilization of such projects by politicians to detract media attention from greater political problems. What inspired this post is that El Sistema only gained criticism when it inspired a worldwide phenomenon of using music as a developmental tool, but these criticisms seem to have been gained for the wrong reasons and with the wrong effects.
Having had the real privilege of working with and filming several music/social uplift projects around the world, the stories of individual performers reveal that different people gain different things from these projects. Looking at these participants as individuals paints another picture to that of Toronyi-Lalic’s concert review, which declares that “playing in an orchestra does not make you any better, wiser, richer, more emotionally or socially intelligent” only to finally conclude that the “street kids” he was dismissing did sound good though. Maybe it’s time to readdress the way we look at and talk about the perceived “unfortunate”. Rather than being passive, powerless victims to the indoctrination and enforcement of a missionary-style cultural imperialism, the participants in these projects are children and young people who have actively made the personal and conscientious decision to take hold of an instrument available to them and dedicate hours and hours of their time on a daily, yearly basis in order to perfect the skills it provides. The most powerful example of this is the Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura (Recycled Orchestra of Cateura) in which children living next to a landfill in Catuera, Paraguay have learnt to make their own instruments out of recycled items of rubbish so they can eventually build up a Symphony Orchestra
What is most poignant about this project is that self-expression gives these performers the opportunity to define themselves in spite of the living the conditions or the outside social stigma that they endure. It’s also important not to underestimate the importance of being able to express yourself and externalise your experiences, particularly if having been subjected to what are very often traumatic effects of poverty.
The preoccupation with associating elitism with classical music in this context seems contradictory for two reasons. Firstly, the objective of diversifying performers and audience members in order to make classical music more accessible, popular and egalitarian would effectively make it… not elite.
Furthermore, the biggest surprise for performers participating in music/social uplift projects is usually not the realisation of their own potential but the potential of collaborating with other performers of different ages, classes and regional backgrounds who they normally may not have otherwise met. This is certainly the case for the El Sistema-inspired NEOJIBA project founded by Ricardo Castro in Bahia, Brazil, where children of all social backgrounds are taught music not for the personal prestige of individual performers but so that they will pass forward the same technique, thereby sharing and developing ideas while providing greater opportunities to the following generations
This very format encourages social mixing and open-mindedness in a socially disparate region rather than indoctrination, submission and elitism.
Even if classical music itself still leaves you uninspired, it is not as though these orchestras are strictly restricted to all things classical. If anything, the teaching of traditional Scottish folk songs in the Sistema Scotland project aims to reinforce the communality through a shared cultural heritage.
Furthermore, the potential of large-scale, collaborative, creative projects building confidence, improvisation, self-expression and technicality is just as applicable to jazz group, a steel band, a percussion circle, a Bhangra ensemble, a zither orchestra… Just because projects with similar aims using different musical styles, different instruments, or even different art forms, may not have been realised or publicised to the same extent, it is not to say that they cannot be, or have not already been, done.
Really what’s important about all this is what skills these children are gaining from the experience of these orchestras: team work, dedication, communication, technical expertise, confidence, creativity, innovation… and soon you realise that the most important thing linking them is not that they are able to make someone be a static and cultivated being but that they are interdisciplinary, sought after, skills which can be taken, reappropriated and used to do new things, create or seize new opportunities, even new music. The point is, self-expression and personal development go hand-in-hand, overturning prejudice, surpassing expectations and, most importantly, commanding respect.
By Libby Knowles