José Abreu: Founder of world renowned El Sistema music project dies


José Abreu meets a child as he arrives at a free concert at La Vega in Caracas August 2, 2009Image copyright
Reuters

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José Abreu’s work used music to lift children out of poverty

Tributes have been paid following the death of José Abreu, founder of a renowned music programme that changed the lives of thousands of children.

Abreu founded El Sistema (the system), providing free music education in Venezuela’s shantytowns and poor neighbourhoods.

The programme has inspired similar systems in other countries.

Venezuela announced three days of national mourning for “Maestro Abreu”, who died on Saturday aged 78.

He began the music project in 1975 and counted renowned Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel among his students.

“With devoted love and eternal gratitude to my mentor and father of El Sistema,” tweeted Dudamel, who is now director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

What was José Abreu’s background?

Abreu was born in the Andean city of Valera on May 7, 1939. Music ran deep in his family – his grandfather had founded an orchestra in Italy and his grandmother was a passionate opera fan. Abreu’s mother played piano, and his father the guitar.

He pursued music studies but later – to help support his family – he moved to Caracas to take a degree in economics.

He later worked as an economist for the government and was elected as a substitute member of parliament in the 1960s.

How did El Sistema begin?

Abreu said he became frustrated that Venezuela had only one orchestra while other countries, such as Argentina, Brazil or Mexico, had achieved greater musical development.

“That’s when the idea was born to organise a system to have at least one great Venezuelan-born orchestra,” he recalled.

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Getty Images

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Hundreds of thousands of children in Venezuela are enrolled in El Sistema

He founded El Sistema in 1975 in a garage with just 11 musicians.

“They were so determined and so enthusiastic that I understood from that very moment that success was guaranteed,” he remembered.

The network eventually grew to 300 choirs and orchestras.

It has been echoed in a variety of other countries around the world, with particular success in Spain and Scotland, writes Will Grant, the BBC’s Latin America correspondent.

How did it work?

One of the programme’s founding principals was to combat poverty through music, teaching classical works in the poorest areas of the country.

Children are taught from the age of three to play music during free afternoon classes, with a focus on orchestral practise.

There are nucleos (teaching centres) around the country, often located in deprived neighbourhoods.

“They are boys that we are taking away from drugs and violence,” Abreu told AFP news agency some years ago.

“Just sitting a boy in a rehearsal to play, when he could be on the corner smoking marijuana, is already a very important achievement.”

Was it politically motivated?

El Sistema was heavily promoted by the socialist government of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and has been one of the country’s best funded social programmes.

However, in a 2009 interview with the BBC, Abreu said he had tried to remain neutral over Venezuela’s polarised political environment.

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Getty Images

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Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is a former student of El Sistema

He said he was only concerned with the social policy of the Venezuelan state towards “young people of low-income backgrounds” and in seeing the project take hold in other countries.

“I think it’s important because it will spread the ideas that constitute the fundamentals of our project – solidarity, social action through music and understanding between peoples,” he said.

What have others said about him?

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on state television that the country was “deeply moved by the departure… of Maestro Abreu”.

Education Minister Elias Jaua tweeted: “Thanks to Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu for his beautiful legacy for the boys, girls and young people of Venezuela.”

Colombia’s foreign ministry also issued a statement, saying Abreu had “inspired and trained millions of children and young people in Venezuela, Latin America and the world”.

Sir Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic, was a strong supporter of Mr Abreu and El Sistema.

Speaking in 2010 he said: “What Abreu and El Sistema have done is to bring hope, through music, to hundreds of thousands of lives that would otherwise have been lost to drugs and violence.”

El Sistema received many awards, most notably from the Royal Swedish Academy and Unesco.



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