It’s such a small world really. I was one of 150 delegates (and the only one from India) chosen to participate in the first of its kind, International Sistema Teachers’ Conference organised by Sistema Scotland last month. And when Jesús Morin Duarte from El Sistema Venezuela addressed us on the opening day, I had the distinct impression that I had seen him before, yet couldn’t for the life of me figure out how this could be possible. It became when I went up to him and introduced myself. I also told him in my rudimentary Spanish how the electrifying concert by El Sistema Venezuela’s flagship ensemble (they now have several more, and just as fine) the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra at the BBC Proms festival at the Royal Albert Hall London in 2007 literally changed my life, in influencing my decision to turn my back on a career as a GP in the UK and return home to set up Child’s Play India Foundation, inspired by the principles of El Sistema. “I was in the cello section in the orchestra, so I played in that concert too!” he smiled at me, eyes twinkling. So that’s how I had seen him before. And here we were, seven eventful years later, in the UK again, but meeting under different circumstances. I was no longer a spectator from the sidelines, but one of the Sistema family.
Duarte acknowledged the wide expanse of this family when he said “El Sistema is a work-in-progress, improvised and developed every day everywhere in the world. Indeed, we were a manifestation of this. There were 150 of us, from 27 countries spanning North and South America, Europe, the British Isles, Asia, Africa and Oceania.
So if any of us were looking for an instruction manual on how to replicate the phenomenal success of the El Sistema music revolution, quite frankly there isn’t one.
For the uninitiated: El Sistema is a publicly financed voluntary sector music education programme in Venezuela founded in 1975 by Venezuelan educator, musician and activist José Antonio Abreu. It provides free classical music education that “promotes opportunity and development for impoverished children”.
Beginning with 11 children in an underground parking garage, El Sistema Venezuela has now grown to fulfil its promise in its mission statement to hundreds of thousands of children, and will have a presence in every Venezuelan school reaching out to 500,000 children each year by 2015. Its 2009 statistics reveal that it has “102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras, and 270 music centres—and close to 250,000 musicians.” Their poster boy among musicians is undoubtedly Gustavo Dudamel, a conductor with a meteoric career and already at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, infusing it with his zany brand of Latin American energy.
Although the Sistema movement remained a Latin American ‘secret’ for the first decade or so, news of its power to transform communities through social inclusion and change has now got the rest of the world to sit up and take notice. The 2007 London Proms concert had a deep influence on many others besides me. Months after it, the UK government invested £332 million in music education. Julian Lloyd Webber noted that they had “an impoverished South American nation to thank” for their “miraculous” performance. He was appointed chairman of the steering group of In Harmony an El Sistema-based British government-led music education and community development project focussed on impoverished areas of England.
What I saw and experienced first-hand in Scotland is even more impressive. Sistema Scotland was established with a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, as a result of an initiative by its chairman Richard Holloway, for the purpose of breaking the cycle of poverty in the economically depressed area of Raploch, in Stirling, where male life expectancy is less than 63 years. Since then they have expanded to Govanhill, another impoverished area with a large immigrant community, and plans are afoot to go to Aberdeen as well.
The Govanhill project in particular ought to silence those critics who believe that certain people from certain backgrounds cannot take to western classical music easily. Govanhill has a sizeable Pakistani population, many of them newly arrived from their country. I heard first-generation young children from Jhelum and Lahore play student arrangements of classical masterpieces such as Dvořák’s “From the New World” with as much gusto, feeling and love as their counterparts from Scotland and Eastern Europe in their youth orchestra. They were able to do this in a matter of weeks and months. For anyone to think that children in Goa from a shelter in St. Inez, or schools in Caranzalem or Aldona, or a hutment in Bardez should be any different from children anywhere else in the world is patently absurd. A hushed silence descended on a busy cafeteria at the conference when I played a video of our kids’ playing to other delegates. The sound of their playing with such confidence and poise drew in everyone’s attention. Seasoned teachers marvelled at the fact that our children had got to this level in such a short time, and with such meagre resources and funding. Imagine what India’s children could do with improvements on both counts.
India is currently riding on a high wave of national pride. If we truly believe in our children, we have to collectively invest in their future, just as Venezuela, Scotland, the rest of the United Kingdom and so many other parts of the world have done. In 2012, the Haitian government signed a pact with Venezuela to roll out a Sistema-styled national project across their country.
Richard Holloway from Sistema Scotland ended his speech with the story of the man who was asked why he was even bothering to hurl starfish washed ashore on the beach back into the sea, as there’d be tens of thousands more he wouldn’t be able to save. And the man replied that pointless as it might seem, it nevertheless made all the difference to the starfish that he did manage to return to the sea. “We are all starfish throwers”, said Holloway. “Let us continue to make a difference to as many lives as we are able to touch.” Indeed.
(An edited version of this article was published on 23 November 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)