Venezueal: INOF Los Teques, Oct. 25th

Dear all,

I wrote before about the mountains being peppered with favelas or barrios (shanty towns) and couldn’t have been more wrong. After having the chance to drive during the day through different neighborhoods in and around Caracas I realized that whole mountains are covered with these very barrios. In fact, I am only now realizing that these poor villages represent far more of Caracas then I had ever imagined.

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From these barrios come many of the women I worked with yesterday during my second day at INOF (Institución Nacional de Orientación Femenina). I couldn’t write last night for fear that I wouldn’t give justice to my experiences. Still I am doubtful I can express the power of the work El Sistema conducts in the penitentiaries of Venezuela.

The day began with the same winding drive snaking through mountains and valleys with Margarita from Caracas to Los Teques. By now I am becoming accustomed to the frivolity of red lights and a new discovery, “black lights” (broken stop lights). “Why stop? No one is there.” The traffic is a part of life intimately known to all caraqueños. More winding roads, breathtaking mountain vistas and daredevil motorcyclists. There seems to be an unspoken competition to carry the maximum amount of people possible on 2 wheels.

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Three quarters through the drive panic struck. I had left my passport, and thus my entry to the prison, in the hotel (something quickly being known as “Schraming it”). We either had to turn back, thus missing the full orchestra rehearsal, or cross our fingers that we can fool security into thinking we are nice friendly musicians here to help. Margarita calmly suggested the latter. No passport, NO PROBLEM! We entered without problems. Again I thought about all of the fantastic devices and weapons I could have brought, even sharing this thought with Margarita. She proudly explained the relaxed security for El Sistema has to do with ZERO negative incidences with the penitentiary programs in their 7 year history. Not something to be scoffed at.

Entering the prison and walking through catcalls of women excited to see a young man in a collared shirt (I thought to myself, is this what women feel like walking through construction sites? I think I saw a Saturday night live skit about this.) we arrived at the orchestra and choir rehearsal. Finally I was able to see the pride of El Sistema, the symphony orchestra. Amongst everything I had seen, it is the orchestra that represents all of the goals of the program: the perfect analog to a functional society. More on this later.

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At lunch I had the chance to eat with the professors who are an inspiration all their own. If it weren’t for their passion and unbelievably positive attitude none of the incredible changes happening at INOF would be possible. Most of the professors are my age or younger and generally work a second job as directors of other El Sistema orchestras. It is a small miracle that they still have smiles on their faces and brilliance in their eyes throughout the day.

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One of the last events of the days was a beginning strings class. The experience level here was from 1 day to 2 weeks. The only purpose of this class is to get the newest students to the minimal necessary level to join the rest in the symphony orchestra. The rate in which these musicians learn is remarkable.

What really called my attention in this class was a visitor. One of the violists (who also happens to play clarinet beautifully) had her 6 year old daughter visiting. At first there was resistance with security to let her daughter into the class but thankfully she was allowed. One of the most important aspects of what is being done in the Orquesta Penitenciarias de El Sistema (OPES) is the idea of building pride not only in one’s self but also in their friends, family and community.

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What followed I’ll never forget. As internos began flowing into the classroom I was asked to play for them. I can’t remember a time when I was so nervous. Here in front of me were 50 people who had shared a part of themselves so personal and so fragile. How could I possibly show them anything more beautiful than that? First, I played, “El Nana” by Manuel de Falla. While I had known for some time that this spanish song was a lullaby to a child, NEVER had I felt the meaning of this music more than when I was standing in front of so many mothers who have not seen their children in years.

With knees shaking and chin trembling I managed through the music. Opening my eyes afterwards I felt the most intense and warm reception as I met the women’s eyes with my own. It is a musician’s dream to be able to give back to those that have given you so much.

Afterwards Margarita asked if any of the internos wanted to share anything with me. One of the beginning flute students with whom I had worked stood up immediately and shared these words:

“On behalf of myself and my friends I want to thank you for coming here. To have someone travel from so far to share with us what no one was willing to show us in the streets is so special. Even though we are in here this music makes us forget where we are. We can forget about the world below and just be free.”
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As I’ve said, I didn’t know what to expect when I came to Venezuela. How can such an academic music have an effect on people that have lived a life apart from it for so many years? I don’t think it is the type of music that matters. We could have been playing Salsa, R&B, or the Titanic theme songs (which a flautist beautifully played earlier). What matters is that someone cares for these people and shares with them what is truly important to themselves. For musicians, it’s obvious that it be music. Painters should share their paint. Writers should share their words. Chefs should share their food.

As America stands independently as the incarceration capital of the world I feel stronger than ever that artists must encourage each other to share their spirit and their art with the people that are too easily forgotten.

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