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He Made Playing Music Visible, Beautiful And Unfailingly Democratic

Image: Young Saint Lucian performers with the Venezuelan master musician Jose Antonio Abreu, during one of several encounters.

Over 1,000 young Saint Lucian players of instruments have benefited from the grand works of the melodious Venezuelan music maestro, José Antonio Abreu

ON March 24th, 2018, Venezuelan musician and Maestro, José Antonio Abreu died in Caracas at the age of 78. But, who was José Antonio Abreu?

It can be said that he was a musician, economist, politician, activist and Venezuelan educator, founder of the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and creator of the “National System of Symphonic Orchestras and Youth and Children’s Choirs of Venezuela”, universally known as ”El Sistema”.

Image: Young Saint Lucian performers with the Venezuelan master musician Jose Antonio Abreu, during one of several encounters.
Young Saint Lucian performers with the Venezuelan master musician Jose Antonio Abreu, during one of several encounters.

But Maestro Abreu was much more than that. He was a visionary who through his hands and efforts, was able to accomplish that music in Venezuela ceased from being a playful instrument in unreachable pinnacles to become the daily use of thousands and millions of children, youth and adults, of any social and economic level, while also diverting music from being mystical and making it visible, beautifully possible and unfailingly democratic.

The Key
The key to all this, contrary to what anyone could imagine, is that Maestro Abreu’s philosophical approach, which he would translate into his life project (El Sistema), did not mean forming or making top-level academic musicians, but rather to form citizens. Citizens, who through their individual and collective experience obtained in the process of musical formation, acquire the fundamental tools to overcome poverty, exclusion and thus be links of social transformation. That was the philosophy of the Maestro – to combat material poverty, through the spiritual wealth that music brings – so that once this process is undertaken, we can overcome any type of obstacles, whether economic or social.

José Antonio Abreu, was born on May 7, 1939, in Valera, Trujillo state, in western Venezuela. He began studying music at the age of nine, studied the piano, the organ, the harpsichord and composition with 3 of the greatest and most famous Venezuelan academic musicians of the last century (Moisés Moleiro, Evencio Castellanos and Vicente Emilio Sojo).

In 1964, he obtained the title of Performing Teacher and Composing Teacher, Orchestral Director, Harpsichordist, Organist and Pianist at the José Ángel Lamas High School of Music in Caracas. But in addition, his intellectual and professional resume includes a degree in Economics (Summa Cum Laude) and a Ph.D in Petroleum Economics from the University of Pennsylvania.

These academic achievements allowed him to distinguish himself as a university professor, planner and economic adviser, serving in various positions such as: Director of Planning and Advisor of the National Council of Economics, besides being Minister of State for Culture, President of the National Council of Culture and Deputy to the National Congress of the Republic.

In 1975, he decided to combine teaching, management and art; founding a national network so that young people without resources could learn music, the “National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela”, a project that would become an unprecedented social phenomenon in Latin America. Through “El Sistema”, Maestro Abreu managed to systematize the instruction and the collective and individual practice of music, through symphony orchestras and choirs, as instruments of social organization and humanistic development.

Although it is true that this project was born in the 70s, it was not until the arrival of the Bolivarian Revolution — and thanks to Commander Hugo Chávez and President Nicolás Maduro — that it received all the support of the Venezuelan State, creating for it the “Simón Bolívar Musical Foundation”, attached to the “Ministry of Popular Power of the Office of the Presidency”, to the point of receiving 90% of its budget from the State.

A Powerful Network
Nowadays “El Sistema” is a powerful network of orchestras, choirs, modules, special programmes, nuclei, music schools and luthier centres and manufacture of musical instruments, which currently serves a population of 900,000 Venezuelan children and young people, distributed in: 1,681 youth, infant and pre-infant orchestras; 166 groups of the Alma Llanera Programme (popular and traditional Venezuelan music training programme), 1,389 children and youth choirs, 1,983 music initiation groups and a teaching staff of more than 10,000 teachers in the 24 states of Venezuela. An important fact: 75% of the young people benefitted live below the poverty rate.

In addition to this, “El Sistema” has established sui generis programmes: The Special Education Programme, which benefits young people and children with special skills; the Penitentiary Orchestra Programmee, which supports the reintegration into society of men and women deprived of their liberty; and the Hospital Care Programme, which welcomes children with chronic diseases in hospital centres. Currently, this model has been replicated in more than 35 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, North America and Europe.

The St. Lucia Connection
In Saint Lucia, the relationship with the National System of Orchestras, began in 2013, thanks to the initiative of the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the Venezuelan Government and the Saint Lucia School of Music. In September 2013, 10 Saint Lucian students and a teacher, had the opportunity to visit different venues and nuclei of the System of Orchestras in Venezuela, managing to have a direct encounter with Maestro José Antonio Abreu, whom received as a special craft token of Saint Lucia’s historical landmark (the Petit Piton and Gros Piton mountains) and he in turn gave each member of the delegation a jacket with the Venezuelan tricolor, emblem of all the Orchestras that are part of the System. For more than an hour, the Maestro spoke with the students, joked, asked questions, heard about the island and the project he proposed to implement and promised all the necessary support from the Simón Bolívar Foundation. Melody Fevrier, Coman Fevrier, Grace Ramjewan, Runny Gordon, Merisa Henry, Kayme Edwin, Rashaad Joseph, Dwigth Florent, Lestan Celestin, Rhon Louis and Marie Medina, all witnessed that moment.

From 2013 to the present date, intensive musical training workshops were held in Saint Lucía, conducted by young Venezuelan teachers from The National System of Orchestras, with a global impact during these years of more than 1,000 young Saint Lucians that in different places throughout the island, were touched by this program.

Additional to this, in 2016, “El Sistema” gave the opportunity to the Saint Lucia’s School of Music’s most advanced student at that moment, to receive additional practice in an intensive workshop in different venues of orchestra training in Venezuela, for a period of 4 months. That same year, a delegation of the School formed by its Director Richard Pyne and recognized Saint Lucian musician Gene Lawrence, had the opportunity to visit different Nuclei of the National System of Orchestras, located in the Guárico and Caracas states, with the objective of receiving administrative and academic guidance for the structuring and conformation of this methodological project on the island.

On two occasions in 2014 and 2015, wonderful concerts were held at the “Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception” in Castries, with more than 200 young Saint Lucians and Venezuelans together on stage. For those who would like to see a sample of that moment, the links of 02 performances of the concert are:

Likewise in 2015, a Symphony Orchestra, held a concert in the South (at the Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Laborie) and on that opportunity, public plazas and shopping centres, were occupied by young Venezuelan musicians to demonstrate the best of their talent and versatility. In each and every one of those occasions, the consistent support of Maestro Abreu and his work team was always on the frontline, assuring the availability of the different work teams that have been present in Saint Lucia.

The Best Tribute

The best tribute for Maestro Abreu is that the pilot project for the System of Caribbean Orchestras can be consolidated in Saint Lucia. When we begin to understand that Music and Culture should be the fundamental pillars for the progress of nations, the overcoming of poverty, inequalities and the transformation of man, and therefore of society, we will be travelling the same path of the possible utopia that Maestro José Antonio Abreu went through, at the moment there is nothing else to be done but to comply with his order: To Play and Strive forever.

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