Sir Simon Rattle told Ed Vuilliamy in yesterday’s Observer exactly why José Antonio Abreu deserves the Nobel Prize for his creation of El Sistema:
I never met Nelson Mandela, but I have met Abreu,” says Rattle. “There are certain people who have given so much to so many people in the world that there is a connection. It is a prize for peace, of course, and people will say that Abreu is not ending a war. But I’ve been to those barrios and it is a war zone. There are parts of Caracas in which it is just too dangerous to walk. The people living in those barrios are living in a war.”
Caracas now competes with Ciudad Juárez, hub of Mexico’s savage narco-cartel war, as the most murderous city in the world. “What Abreu and El Sistema have done in there,” says Rattle, “is to bring hope, through music, to hundreds of thousands of lives that would otherwise have been lost to drugs and violence. It is impossible to calculate. Abreu has saved those people physically in many cases and he has saved them in other ways too – he has given them life in all its depth. Abreu has built a system that provides nutrition for the soul.”
This sets up resonances with several conversations these past few days. First, Gabriela Montero, whom I interviewed last week, has turned the logo on her latest CD blue (instead of EMI red) in protest at the politics of her native Venezuela that have produced those social disaster zones in the first place: El Sistema, she said, is “one of the few things there that is working”. And then there is Ed Vuilliamy’s other Observer piece, out yesterday, looking at the application of El Sistema ideas right here in sunny Britain. It’s a substantial and heartfelt article: do give it a good read.
But when I posted it on Facebook yesterday, several friends of a similar vintage to myself wrote in to make the point that this system isn’t new in Britain. We used to have an excellent universal music education system — a veritable Sistema — that sustained many who grew up between the 1960s and the end of the 1970s. A great many youngsters who would never otherwise have had the opportunity were, at that time, able to learn a musical instrument free of charge; as a result superlative musicians emerged from a range of apparently unlikely backgrounds. They had the opportunity to discover their own gifts and made good in the profession; without that support some might never have taken the first step and could have been condemned to, for example, unemployment in depressed former industrial communities, a shot at The Full Monty or a life of crime. But these people are no longer spring chickens. Music education in Britain was utterly decimated in the 1980s and we’re now dealing with a ‘lost generation’ who not only never had those opportunities, but don’t know what they’re missing.
As Abreu says in the article:
“The rich have a duty to the poor which they will never pay financially. But they can pay it socially: to deprive the poor of the beauty of the highest art is a terrible form of oppression.”
It takes many years, indeed decades, to build up something as successful as El Sistema (it has been going about 35 years in Venezuela). Yet all those achievements can be wiped out with one stroke of an ignorant bigot’s power-wielding pen — as looks about to happen in the Netherlands, where a new coalition encompassing the far right is poised to take power and is scheming to get rid of the entire national radio orchestra infrastructure in one fell swoop, including the choir, no fewer than three orchestras and the Netherlands Radio Music Library, which my Dutch friends say is the biggest music library in the world — apparently because they consider the arts ‘only for the left-wing intellectual elite and not for the ordinary Dutch’ (odd…here in the UK elements of the left wing have often considered them only for the right-wing elite…). The Residentie Orchestra in The Hague is also threatened with savage cuts that could compromise its existence, as, apparently to a lesser extent, is the Rotterdam Philharmonic.
It is a case of utter vandalism — ideological, ill thought through and antithetical to a civilised society. If they go through with it, it’s a tragedy in the making: a terrible waste of extraordinary amounts of talent, energy, education, devotion and achievement: the very opposite of El Sistema, a way instead of depriving the people of goodness, improvement and hope. That coalition’s lynchpin, Geert Wilders, is now on trial for inciting racial hatred. We wouldn’t even let him enter Britain, I seem to remember.
I second Sir Simon’s call: please give Mr Abreu the Nobel Peace Prize. He has done more than anybody else on the planet to show that the musical soul is something for which everybody, everywhere has a need; to which everybody, everywhere should have a right; and which promotes peace at a grass-roots level without which no other peace can be wholly sustainable. And give it now, before it’s too late.
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