The Power of Music to Create Change: Global Stories of Music and Empowerment
By Montserrat Castañon, Pamela Hernandez, and Sacha Wynne
Issue 12 Summer | Fall 2013<
In a time when the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is widening, and socio-economic mobility is stagnant, the arts are re-emerging as an effective means for community advancement. An examination of Venezuela’s El Sistema, Paraguay’s Recycle Orchestra and the UK’s Love Music Hate Racism reveals the power of music to elevate a community’s soul and surroundings, and provide once-elusive opportunities to the many.
The arts’ ability to inspire and nourish is vital to the health of individuals, communities and countries, and yet, we continually underestimate their power to catalyze change. In our mercurial global economy, we need dynamic and innovative leaders who perceive the world with artistic sensitivities. These are the individuals who will create the solutions that overcome socio-environmental challenges and design change that is truly transformational.
Artful change management is currently practiced in Venezuela, Paraguay and the United Kingdom, where music programs are used to foster self-esteem, strengthen local pride and empower communities. Music is inspiring communities to express themselves, expand their perceptions of the world, explore their imaginations and connect with people within and beyond the borders they inhabit.
Venezuela’s state-funded orchestral system, “El Sistema” (The System), was created by maestro José Antonio Abreu in 1975. Abreu believes that music is the vessel through which complex emotions are best communicated:
“music has to be recognized as an agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values of solidarity, harmony and mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.”
He is dedicated to a utopian vision, in which the orchestra represents an ideal society. The sooner a child is immersed in this environment, the better for all.
Abreu derives inspiration from Mother Theresa’s belief that the worst thing about poverty is not the lack of a roof over one’s head. Rather, it is the destruction of identity, the feeling of being “nobody”. It is essential that children develop self-esteem and receive acknowledgement within their communities, to combat the darkness of despair by illuminating possibility. Music education provides powerful means for children to do so, and is therefore a crucial element in the betterment of society.
Most of the 310,000 to 370,000 Venezuelan children who attend El Sistema’s music schools originate from poor socio-economic backgrounds. A stipend is provided and children are selected by a youth or city orchestra, to both emphasize the value of a musical education and to facilitate continued participation. Most of El Sistema’s teachers are former students, who have returned to the program to nurture subsequent generations of young musicians. The students’ mobility demonstrates the power of ensemble music to change the lives of a nation’s youth, while it transforms the communities around them.
The Simón Bolívar Music Foundation governs El Sistema, and aims to promote social organization and community development through the practice of symphonic and choral music. At the present time, El Sistema oversees 60 children’s orchestras, nearly 200 youth orchestras, 30 professional adult orchestras, dozens of choruses, and the training programs that make them possible. Under the auspices of the Simón Bolívar Music Foundation, El Sistema has emerged as the most comprehensive social responsibility program ever developed in Venezuela, and has made unparalleled impact worldwide.
El Sistema’s influence stretches far beyond Venezuela’s borders: it is the winner of numerous international awards (including the Prince Asturias Award for the Arts, the UNESCO International Music Prize and a TED Prize), and has nurtured globally renowned musicians such as Edicson Ruiz and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra regularly dazzles audiences around the world, in legendary venues like Carnegie Hall.
Americans inspired by El Sistema’s visionary programs have a local resource, in the form of El Sistema USA. This satellite operation provides information on El Sistema’s methodology and offers a variety of resources that aid those seeking to build, expand and support El Sistema programs in the United States – and beyond.
The Recycle Orchestra
Music serves society on a smaller scale in Cateura, Paraguay. As the recipient of 1,500 tons of garbage daily, Cateura is not the type of environment in which opportunities for self- and community-development usually exist. However, they do.
Using the trash that surrounds them, the Cateurians have leveraged their creativity and collective efforts to create The Recycle Orchestra.
The musicians in The Recycle Orchestra play string, woodwind and percussion instruments that are masterfully fashioned from recycled garbage. Its founder, landfill worker and musician Favio Chavez, wants people to “realize that we should not throw away trash carelessly. Well, we should not throw away people either .”
The Recycle Orchestra has performed internationally, in Brazil and Colombia, and some of its original members currently play with traditional orchestras around the world. Their stories will be featured in the “Landfill Harmonic” documentary, which will be released in 2014.
Love Music Hate Racism
Love Music Hate Racism was founded in 2002 to combat racial violence, racist rhetoric, and the increasing popularity of the United Kingdom’s fascist British National Party (BNP).
The organization is a direct descendant of the seminal Rock Against Racism movement. Rock Against Racism gained prominence in the late-1970s, when it was founded to counter racist remarks made by popular musicians of the day (including a handful who were subsequently inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame), and growing white nationalism. Rock, punk, funk, jazz and reggae musicians “sang out” against these destructive ideals and inspired their fans to join together for the cause. The movement was revitalized, in the form of Love Music Hate Racism, with the re-emergence of similar sentiments in Great Britain in the early aughts.
Love Music Hate Racism produces large-scale musical events, and is affiliated with influential artists – from legends like Mick Jones (of The Clash) to dance floor icons like Estelle and Basement Jaxx. At the same time, it affords the spotlight to emerging musicians across the United Kingdom who perform at, and produce, local events. Much of Love Music Hate Racism’s work is advocacy-based, and the organization works tirelessly to mobilize voters against not just the BNP, but all intolerant candidates. Recognizing the importance of local organizers to these efforts, Love Music Hate Racism provides them with a host of resources that help individuals to galvanize their communities toward change.
Love Music Hate Racism unites multiracial, multicultural, multifaith crowds through the celebration of shared experiences.
Through music (rock, hip-hop, grime, soul, bhangra, drum ‘n base, indie, punk, reggae, and jazz), it bolsters the strengths that unite us and weakens the tyrannies that would tear us apart.
El Sistema, The Recycle Orchestra and Love Music Hate Racism demonstrate that the arts can: create moral and aesthetic values; serve as channels for self-expression; shape identity; build communities; increase economic opportunity; improve sense of belonging or community attachment; reduce the risk of delinquency; and have an incredible power to unify. These communities in Paraguay, Venezuela and Great Britain are proof of the power of the arts to improve circumstances, catalyze social change and foster peace.
The arts are essential strategic elements of transformational civic change.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Envision multi-faceted outcomes
Identify the beauty and potential in all
Challenge perceptions of what is possible
Foster expression to empower communities
About the Authors:
Pamela, born and raised in Mexico City, is passionate about contemporary arts and social media. She has worked at the International Society of Mexican Art Values (SIVAM), MoMA PS1, The Solomon R. Guggenheim, Creative Time, Issue Project Room, among other non-profit arts organizations. In 2012, she coedited a book gathering more than 50 philanthropists, 18 contemporary Mexican artists and a group of artisans of Chiapas, Mexico; and in 2013, Pamela created an artists residency program between NYC and Mexico City. Today, she is interested in exploring the challenges and opportunities presented by an increasing global art market and digital communications. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Media and Communications from the Universidad Iberoamericana and a Master’s degree in Arts and Cultural Management from Pratt Institute.
Born and raised in Mexico City, Montserrat Castañon is an industrial designer with experience focusing on the production of design projects and art exhibitions in museums and galleries such as Laboratorio Arte Alameda in Mexico City and Cristina Grajales Gallery in New York City. She currently works at Fitz & Co, a strategic communications agency for art and culture, with clients like Art Basel, Paris Photo and Sharjah Art Foundation. Her passions are the creative intersection between disciplines, like art and design, and cultural exchange. She looks to work with creative talents to bring their work to new audiences and markets.
Sacha is a graduate student in the Pratt Institute’s Arts and Cultural Management program. She is also a professional writer, and has contributed to several groundbreaking print and online publications, including TRACE, papermag.com and VIBE Vixen. Sacha aspires to innovate at the intersection of the arts, the private sector and public works. In the meantime, she is writing a collection of short stories.