Venezuela: Barinas, Oct. 27th

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In the Barinas Penitentiary I was walking around the building until I was stopped at a barred door along with other internos of the program. Behind us came a professor who quickly reached for his keys to let us through. As the door opened one of the violinist’s whom I earlier heard studying an A major scale smiled and looked at me saying, “Phew! For a moment there I felt like a prisoner.” This anecdote describes the story that I have been seeing and hearing over the past 4 days: The music and environment these people are creating is allowing them to forget their barbed wire surrounding.

Barinas is a city within a state of the same name on the western side of Venezuela roughly 6 hours from Caracas. Venezuela is surrounded by a crust of vibrant, green mountains lining the coast. Inside this crust is a valley of farmland, pastures, and jungle that runs along the entire country. Venezuelans affectionately call the flatlands la Llanera for its characteristic plains and peacefully flat scenery. The majority of the population are farmers that proudly create the best meat in Venezuela (I agree, more on this in Venezuela: The Food Issue). In fact, one of the internos is known as the “butcher”, not for grotesque reasons, but for the fact that he can cut down a cow into all of its delicious parts in less than an hour. How do they know this? Instead of coming to music lessons one day he was proudly and expertly dismantling a bovina before the eyes of internos and guards alike.

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In the drive to Barinas I rode with Margarita, my wonderful companion on this journey, and Kleiberth Lenin Mora, the director and founder of the Orquestas Penitentiarias de El Sistema (El Sistema Penetentiary Orchestras). For six hours I was able to enjoy breathtaking scenery and slowly pick the mind of a man who’s vision has been unstoppable since 2003. Lenin originally played horn as a member of the Simón Bolivar núcleo in Caracas. Developing his studies outside music, as is strongly encouraged by El Sistema, he became a lawyer and began imagining the potential inside prisons. Taking 4 years to pass through the government, Lenin finally achieved clearance and funding from the Venezuelan government to start El Sistema núcleos in 3 Venezuelan prisons, INOF being one of the first. Amidst tremendous doubt amongst friends and colleagues the Orquestas Penetenciarias de El Sistema are now flourishing in 8 prisons throughout Venezuela with over 1,000 musicians and 160 staff.

The Barinas Penetentiary (Internaudo Judicial de Barinas) has very little to do with what I saw at INOF in Los Teques. The music building, which El Sistema has cleaned and remodeled so that the participants of the program take pride in the building, consists of no more than a large room with cement tables, 2 cubicle-like corners and a patio. The goal of the Barinas núcleo is not to create a symphony orchestra but a band for Venezuelan folk music like the Joropo and Merengue. The instruments taught are the guitar, violin, cuatro (a miniature guitar with four strings) and chorus. The professors supplement these instruments with their own: double bass, mandolin and harp.

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While the program is constantly struggling with scheduling (as all teachers and administrators seem to do) the time allowed for El Sistema’s work has waned slightly. The internos have from 9 – 10:30 every morning for sectionals and practice time and from 10:30 – 11:30 for small band rehearsal and large “orchestra” rehearsal. Passing through the music building during these times is to walk through a cacophony of buzzing guitars, focussed instruction, electric energy, and laughter. This amazing community of people is proof that music can create a positive environment with the fewest possible resources.

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Now what I am REALLY excited to talk about is my personal experience here. So that you have an idea of the kind of energy there is in this building I have to explain that after 2 hours with these musicians my face was twitching and cramping from smiling. Never have a I felt so infected with music and energy. Maybe it was the thrilling sounds of Joropo, or the powerful vocal improvisations of an interno thanking me for being there. Or perhaps it was the screaming support for one of the professors as he displayed the most virtuosic and body-moving harp playing I will EVER hear in my life. Let’s be honest. These prisoners are having a party every day from 9 – 11:30. It’s awesome.

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Departing the institution after the first day I felt burdened. I came here to learn how music can change lives yet the music ended up changing me most. How can I possibly offer them something of my own that can come close to what they’ve shared with me? (sounds familiar? Just like INOF) So, I decided to practice. What? Bach, I guess. But man, the Jaropo is so much cooler. But I’ve got to show them something…

Nervous to perform for everyone on the second day, I began by playing alongside one of the violinists studying Venezuelan folk songs. One song after another, people started gathering around. First a bass player, then a cuatrista (a cuatro player), then a guitarist, then two guitarists. Before I knew it we were half of the musicians in the program. More music, more musicians.

The party had begun.

For the next hour the room was filled with the same virtuosic playing from the day before. Same virtuosic soloing, same stunning harp playing, more virtuosic mandolin solos, more dancing.

The day ended with more face cramps and a slew of picture taking that would have been a rewarding moment with the internos if it wasn’t for the dark cloud of you-know-what digestive problems that were approaching fast and strongly testing my body. I really shouldn’t have eaten that carne con salsa negra last night. What is salsa negra anyways??? Suddenly, I realized, “Wow! I need to go to the bathroom NOW. Shit. We are in a prison. Where are the bathrooms??? WHERE ARE THE F***ING BATHROOMS?!”

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Discussing the program more with Lenin we began to brainstorm ideas of how to share the concept of El Sistema with the prisons and jails of the United States. Yet, as we discussed this the differences between the two systems began clarifying itself in a very scary way. While the average prison sentence for an incarcerated person in Venezuela is 1-2 years, it is 5 in America. The maximum sentence in Venezuela? 30 years. Apparently this is seldom applied and if applied even less often served. In Venezuela there are no life sentences nor death penalties. In the United states 3,287 people are on death row and over 140,000 are serving life sentences.

What Lenin and Margarita really couldn’t believe are the unbelievable costs we are willing to spend to keep our people incarcerated: $31,000 per year, per inmate. That is opposed to the $8,000 per year we spend on education per student per year in urban America. Last year the government cut spending by 1 billion dollars yet increased spending on incarceration by 871 million dollars.

While bringing El Sistema to prisons in America is an important task that will help change the lives of many, the real issue surrounding us is that of mass incarceration. If we really want to change lives we all need to take a broader look at what our system is accomplishing with such an overwhelmingly punitive system.

From Barinas with a whole lot of love,
Nathan