A small boy in a café at the Asociación Cristina de Jóvenes rests a violin on his shoulder. He places the bow onto the strings, closes his eyes and begins to play out the notes of The Beatles’ classic ‘Yesterday’. From behind him other children with string, woodwind and percussion instruments join in the song. This is the image of Las Orquestas Infantiles y Juveniles of Buenos Aires; a city government run scheme which gives children from impoverished backgrounds the opportunity to receive musical training in hope of a better future.
Sponsored by the city government’s Ministry of Education, the project has now grown to extraordinary heights with the aim of fostering “social inclusion”. The project has helped around five thousand children in Buenos Aires in the past with an education that they have been able to apply in a variety of circumstances. Currently, over a thousand children are involved in the scheme across 16 orchestras from nine different neighbourhoods.
Part of a team of coordinators, Marcelo Zanelli highlights the benefits to which the children are exposed. He says that the organisation “believes that music improves many aspects of their lives; from their relationship with other children to their levels of concentration”. Their philosophy relies on the ideas that through dedication and practice, the children involved in the project will hone the skills they need to combat a system that so far has failed them.
According to figures calculated by INDEC more than one in ten people are living below the poverty line in Buenos Aires alone, alongside as many as more than one in four in other areas of Argentina, underlining the need for social projects that offer a solution to unaddressed problems. Whilst teaching music may not be the immediate answer and has drawn scepticism in the past, it is a way of giving poorer children the tools they need to work their way out of a stereotypical mentality that all too often spells a life of crime fuelled by poverty.
Fighting Insecurity and Social Injustice
Marcelo agrees with the projects ability to improve children’s lives as it fosters solidarity. Giving children instruments and teaching them about harmony in the musical sense extends into their everyday lives and helps to combat insecurity.
“[Bajo Flores] is a neighbourhood which has a lot of stigma attached to it, a neighbourhood that is frowned upon by others.” He does not address the challenges that the barrio faces with naivety, but in fact acknowledges the dangers of the area. However, he is quick to add that poorer areas should not be characterised by stereotypes and that through education they are trying to “break the ideology that music is for the elite.”
Therefore, through a cultural medium, the project aims at closing the gap between different social groups which causes insecurity and conflict. Marcelo and the team of music teachers, as well as trying to remove stigma from underprivileged neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, also aim at dismantling the idea that classical music is part of an ivory tower institution never to be touched by those that come from villas. Exposure to classical music by artists such as Mozart is taken as seriously as tango and folkloric music from different parts of Argentina and South America, thus embracing a wealth of cultural backgrounds.
With recent events that have sparked a wave of xenophobia across the city due to the Villa Soldati evictions and killings, fostering such multicultural education amongst Argentine youths is paramount. Marcelo believes that “the orchestras serve a purpose to teach children that music isn’t limited to what they might hear on television or the radio,” and he goes onto say that “many are children of emigrants [from other South American countries] and it is important that we play their music” in order to encourage social cohesion and equality.
A Song of International Success
The success of these methods is not isolated to Argentina. Across South America, other social programmes that teach music are being implemented with similar success rates. Before giving their concert, the children of the Bajo Flores Youth Orchestra were told an encouraging story about a famous Venezuelan conductor that learnt music from a similar government project. El Sistema as it has been dubbed by its members is now celebrating 35 years of success in changing the lives of at-risk youths in Venezuela. One such example is Lennar Acosta, who before his initial involvement in Venezuelan El Sistema at the age of 17 had already visited a correctional facility for young people no less than six times. Now he earns a living at a musical institute and has performed several times in the Teresa Carreno music hall, a prized venue in Venezuela.
The scheme in Argentina has successful followed the Venezuelan example. It has taught children more than music, but a set of values, which have led them to bright careers and futures in and outside of the music industry. The scheme is designed in a way to consistently keep training students from beginners to an advanced, professional level. In the past, Argentine youth orchestras from Retiro have performed as a support group for Queen to a stadium full of people, creatively reinterpreting ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’; an example which gives the young children of Bajo Flores hope for what could lie ahead for them.
With dozens of similar schemes existing across the world, the Argentine example has a cause to believe in. At the project’s heart is “the spread of knowledge” as Marcelo puts it, which can enact real change. In reference to the villas, he believes that “they aren’t the same neighbourhoods, the children walk with a cello or a trumpet and it changes the landscape,” which works as a symbolic image of a more socially just Argentina.