El Sistema was founded in Venezuela in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu and is now known as Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar. The organization has 31 symphony orchestras, and more than 300,000 children attend its music school “nucleos” around the country. More than 80% of the students come from poor socio-economic backgrounds. The system was designed to improve the life trajectory of young people living in poverty and as a paradigm for social change.
The intensive approach engages youth in group lessons, rehearsals and performance, while emphasizing peer learning and community engagement. The goals of El Sistema centre on developing critical life skills and laying the groundwork for success. The founder of El Sistema; Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu; is a former economist and conductor who has, since 1975, been advocating the belief that a free, intensive, classical music education for the poorest of the poor might positively influence the social problems plaguing the country.
Unfortunately Venezuela continues to experience a high crime rate, coupled with economic and political uncertainty. According to an article in The Guardian, 14 June 2012, the capital, Caracas, is one of the most violent cities in the world. On average, 53 people are murdered there every day.
However, for almost 2 million children who successfully participated in the program since its inception, it has made a huge difference. Many have gone on to become not only musicians, but lawyers, teachers, doctors and civil servants. According to Dr. Abreu, El Sistema's extensive network of nucleos (community music schools), orchestras and choirs, the situation in Venezuela could have been a lot worse.
“Wherever there is an impact evaluation study, the results are unanimous. Children engaged in the programme attain above-average results in school and show a tremendous capacity for collective community action. The orchestra and the choirs, the heart of the programme, help create a sense of solidarity. Involvement becomes a weapon against poverty and inequality, violence and drug abuse.”
Venezuela is a country of over 31 million people, with a population density of 33.75/km2. It is the most urbanised country in South America, and there is a large gap between rich and poor people. Namibia, which has only 2.1 million people, has a population density of only 2.54/km2. Namibia also struggles with poverty, crime and domestic violence, and there is also here is a huge gap between rich and poor. It should therefore follow that Namibia could benefit tremendously by a movement like El Sistema.
Namibia is much less urbanized, and because of the low population density, people have to travel vast distances. Urban sprawl in the capital means that communities don’t exist within easy walking distance from each other; and transport is costly, which may complicate the logistics of an orchestra program.
On the positive side, with such a small population as Namibia, it is conceivable that a large percentage of the country’s children could be reached within the foreseeable future. The impact of such a program could have an incredibly positive impact on the people of this small nation.
The El Sistema concept is not only limited to Venezuela. Over the past decade, many similar programs have sprung up worldwide. It is clear that this movement is not linked to any specific culture. Everywhere in the world, children and communities are being transformed through music. For more some examples of other El Sistema programs, visit the following links: