I am not looking to take sides; I am willing to take a stand. For me it is about the values and processes that choose our political leadership, not who that leader is ultimately.
El Sistema (Spanish for ‘the system’) is a special music project in Venezuela. Founded in 1975, it encourages children from the poorest communities to pick up classical music.
The project keeps disadvantaged children away from violence, drugs and gangs. Instead, they are taken on a journey of creation and self discovery.
Gustavo Dudamel fit the bill. In 1981, he was born in an impoverished area in Barquisimeto. Gustavo started to play the violin at the age of 4.
Later on, he trained to become a conductor. Rodolfo Saglimbeni, a Venezuelan conductor, and the late José Antonio Abreu, who founded El Sistema, guided him along.
At age 18, Gustavo was named conductor of the country’s National Youth Orchestra. He kicked off a career in conducting, winning numerous awards including 2011’s Gramophone Artist of the Year.
Gustavo never forgot his roots. He became the public face of El Sistema, and conducted free concerts in Venezuela’s capital of Caracas.
Then, an increasingly unpopular government pushed to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution in 2017.
More than 7 million citizens took part in a symbolic referendum to oppose this. Protests broke out on the streets. Over 100 people were killed in the unrest.
At first, Gustavo kept quiet. He feared that speaking up would do El Sistema harm. But he put his fears aside and opposed the move.
“Seeking victory through force and the imposition of ideas will inevitably result in collective defeat for Venezuela,” he wrote, in a New York Times editorial.
“I am not looking to take sides; I am willing to take a stand. For me it is about the values and processes that choose our political leadership, not who that leader is ultimately.”
After his criticism, several El Sistema orchestra tours were cancelled. It seems that the government is sticking to its original plan.
Today, the unique El Sistema project continues to run in Venezuela. Gustavo will go down in history as a brave man, and one of the best conductors of his time.
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