A pianist is transforming the lives of children in Brazil’s favelas through a music project that began in Venezuela. Neil Fisher reports from Salvador
I have travelled thousands of miles to hear an eccentric performance of the Israeli national anthem — and, for that matter, thousands of miles in the opposite direction from Israel — but this is quite a special rendition. Fabiane, aged ten, is only about twice the size of her instrument, the trumpet.
In a rehearsal room in the Bairro da Paz, a troubled favela on the outskirts of Salvador in Brazil, where the ceiling is far too low to have brass instruments squealing and pealing, she is soulfully pouring out her part in an arrangement of the anthem, known asHatikvah in Hebrew, or The Hope. It is her favourite tune.
No one in the class — not even the teacher, Mr Rocha — actually knows what the piece means. It just happens to be in their songbook for the day, one of many pieces used to teach the children the fundamentals. And yet The Hopeis a pretty perfect encapsulation of what the trumpet is offering Fabiane. Rocha excitedly tells me that, only after a year spent playing the instrument, Fabiane can join the children’s orchestra of Salvador, the lowest tier of the three youth orchestras that now exist in Brazil’s third-largest city.
“And for me,” Rocha confesses, “that was the principal reason why I gave up playing and decided to be a teacher — to see the kids develop.”
A revolution is spreading across the world and Fabiane — too shy to talk to me but not too shy to entertain her friends with an impromptu solo in the sunshine outside — is the evidence. We now know all about the orchestras and conductors that have come from Venezuela in the past decade: chief among them the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and its figurehead, Gustavo Dudamel, now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and classical music’s hottest property.
“The Dude” sprang from a radical music education programme known as El Sistema, spearheaded by an educator called José Antonio Abreu. Now, however, the Sistema is on to phase two — global domination. On Wednesday, London hosts the Youth Orchestra of Bahia, the flagship project of Neojiba, or the Sistema in Salvador, a 140-strong squad of Brazilian talent. “I’ve taken them from nothing,” says the Neojiba founder and director Ricardo Castro, “and now they’re playing Mahler and touring with Martha Argerich. Venezuela did it in 39 years; we’ve done it in seven.”
Though proud of the orchestra he will be conducting in London (sadly without Argerich, but with the virtuosic Scottish percussionist Colin Currie), Castro would be quick to say that he’s not in competition with the Simón Bolivars. It was performing in a competition — the Leeds Piano Competition, which the Brazilian unexpectedly won in 1993 — that made Castro think twice about what he was doing with his career.
“I felt something strange: like I had won the competition, but many had lost it. It was like a war being in a competition like that. And as pianist, I had a strange life. Something was missing.” Castro realised what when he went to Venezuela and met Abreu. “It suddenly all made sense,” he says. “I could see what an amazing result they had in a very similar country — a much smaller one, but with similar problems.”
Castro had the benefit of Abreu’s advice and so could import the existing principles of the Sistema to his home city of Salvador, particularly its teaching method, whereby children who may have only learnt their instruments for one or two years, immediately start passing on what they know to the next rung down. Yet the obstacles he faced were immense.
Where the Sistema in Venezuela is a nationwide social programme that has been shored up by huge investment from the central government, there was no such support forthcoming from the state of Bahia (about the size of Spain) of which Salvador, a sprawling, unwieldy city of around four million people, is the capital. Salvador is renowned for music, but none of it is classical. It is the city of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso and the spiritual home of samba.
When Castro and his old school friend Eduardo Torres began Neojiba in 2007 by setting up the first youth orchestra in the 450-year history of the city, Torres tells me, there were only two bassoonists in the entire state. Perhaps most challenging, however, are the daunting social problems of a city where some 60 per cent of people live in favelas.
Undaunted, Castro set out to make Neojiba an evangelical tool as much as a musical one. As well as a youth orchestra that everyone could aspire to, he set up music education centres (called nucleos, like the Venezuelan model) across the city. A squad of local musicians were sent to Caracas to get an intensive soaking in all things Sistema; and when they came back they passed it all on. The structure of the programme was crystallised four years ago when Neojiba became a private entity, subsidised not by the culture ministry but by the department for social development.
Since then, as the government sees how many children’s lives have been transformed, funding has been almost tripled to seven million Brazilian reals, or just under £2 million, a huge sum in Salvador. There are just under 1,000 children in official Neojiba programmes and that number is rising dramatically. There are the three orchestras — the main youth orchestra, for players up to 29, the Orchestra Castro Alves (OCA) for teenagers and a children’s group — as well as a choir. Enterprisingly, Neojiba has also set up its own version of Classic FM, which plays masterpieces round the clock to Salvadorans stuck in the endless traffic jams that are a feature of city life.
I hear two concerts in Salvador’s main theatre. The first is an education concert featuring the young players of OCA performing to children from some of Salvador’s poorest areas. The second is a farewell to the main youth orchestra before their European tour, a riotous event with plenty of percussion (doffing the cap to Brazil’s long expertise in that department) and the Latin American pizzazz of Ginastera and Villa-Lobos.
Having been to Caracas to see the Sistema in operation, I recognise the same holistic strategy at work: the players hook in friends and family — “audience development” is organic rather than forced. Ticket prices are about £1. I meet Bahia’s answer to Dudamel, 21-year-old percussionist-turned-conductor Yuri Azevedo. He wants to work with the “main orchestras of the world”, he says, “but also to spread all the knowledge to everyone in Bahia — everything I dreamt to become, so that others can have it too.”
There’s also a noticeably more open spirit to innovation here than in socialist Venezuela. Neojiba faces a constant battle to supply children with affordable instruments, so they have also teamed up with Bahia’s biggest company, Braskem, to develop a “plastic orchestra” — a pilot project for now, but one that has implications not just for the Brazilian Sistema but for the Sistema around the world.
These corporate tie-ins, however, ultimately feed into Castro’s vision: that the true message of the Sistema is about social cohesion and equality of opportunity. It’s why he’s more suspicious of Sistema satellites, such as the ones spearheaded by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, that only target the poorest children. “In North America they have 200 youth orchestras with rich kids, and those kids don’t want to mix. So you have to do it deliberately.”
There is another challenge posed by the rise and rise of Brand Sistema. As the scheme is taken up around the world, will audiences continue to fall for the latest flashy package from somewhere glamorous where the teenagers have better suntans than us and a stronger sense of natural rhythm? That’s missing the point, says Marshall Marcus, CEO of the European Union Youth Orchestra and founder and chairman of Sistema Europe.
“The Simón Bolivar Orchestra has been the Trojan Horse — it goes to places, people are knocked out and they say: ‘We should have one of those.’ But it’s when you travel round Venezuela that you see the effect of the Sistema on a local level, with kids who will not be professionals, but who are using music as a way of social development.” For the same reason Marcus says it would be unfair to judge the UK’s own Sistema projects (based in locations as diverse as Norfolk and Stirling) by the standards of Bahia.
Although there may be a funky Brazilian encore after the London concert (Tico-Tico No Fuba, made famous by Carmen Miranda, is a party piece), Castro and his team are wise enough to know that the Youth Orchestra of Bahia needs to prove itself musically.
There will be nowhere to hide with Mahler’s First Symphony, nor with a performance of Julia Wolfe’s 2012 percussion concerto, riSE and flY, with Colin Currie. Currie, who played the piece with the Brazilians last week in Switzerland, was stunned. “What the piece needs above anything is a huge amount of energy and grit and determination and this orchestra has more than any other I’ve encountered.”
Castro still has one foot in the world of elite performance since he maintains a career as a solo pianist. But now that the Sistema has opened his eyes, he says the classical world needs a fundamental overhaul.
“The lesson for Europe is that we should stop putting the artist on a pedestal. The business has taken over too much and we have lost the reason for why we are doing music. Instead, this could be the message: that we can all be musicians. It just depends on what tools you’ve been given and how soon they gave them to you.”
Just ask Fabiane, playing The Hope on her trumpet.
The Youth Orchestra of Bahia is at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, tonight (0844 8750073)