Magazine article Gramophone

Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change through Music

Magazine article Gramophone

Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change through Music

Article excerpt

Playing For Their Lives

The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music

By Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth

WW Norton, HB, 432pp, 22.50 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-0-39-324564-6

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

There aren't enough instruments to go around in Nairobi, so the young players of Ghetto Classics share them with a different ensemble every day of the week. And when the instrument van pulls up, their eagerness to play is such that they start unloading and setting up immediately. Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth visited Kenya for Playing For Their Lives, their new book on the global El Sistema phenomenon:

'The snare drum and cymbals played random fills at every bump in the pocked streets of the Korogocho neighbourhood. The name means "garbage" in Swahili, and when we arrived at the performance shed that is the programme's rehearsal space we could see the largest dump in Nairobi just beyond the outer wall. A hazy, acrid stench from burning garbage hung in the air; there was a layer of grime on every surface, including all the instruments, after about 20 minutes of exposure.'

Playing For Their Lives is full of such images, many of them depicting youth music-making in environments of barely believable difficulty. Ten-year-old musicians from Orquestrando a Vida in Campos, Brazil, throw themselves to the street at the sound of gunfire, convinced it's aimed at them. Mullahs in Kabul take down rehearsal-room pictures of great composers and denounce the teenage musicians' reverence for Bach and Mozart as 'idolatry'. In Cali, Colombia, leaders of the music project La Batuta negotiate a two-hour truce in a gang war so that the authors can visit in safety. And the stories keep coming: Tunstall and Booth visited Sistema-inspired projects on five continents (an appendix gives an 18-page list). It's testimony to their enthusiasm, as well as the nature of the projects they describe, that the overwhelming impression you take away from this book is one of optimism.

And we haven't even mentioned Venezuela yet. For many classical music lovers in the developed world, the first image of El Sistema that springs to mind is Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra blazing through Bernstein's 'Mambo' at the 2007 BBC Proms. It's easy to forget that most Sistema students have no intention of becoming professional musicians, and that the international careers of Sistema-trained stars such as Dudamel, Rafael Payare and the SBSO are essentially beside the point. The primary objective, we're told, is to develop citizens, not musicians. El Sistema is a social movement as much as a music project, and it's nothing if not a work in progress.

So while Tunstall and Booth begin with a potted history of El Sistema's roots--from Jose Antonio Abreu's first rehearsal in a Caracas garage in 1975 through to the Venezuelan takeover of the 2013 Salzburg Festival--most of their book is a survey of the extraordinary global spread (much of it since 2007) of Sistema-inspired projects. Tunstall and Booth made a point of visiting them in person, which often meant heading directly for some profoundly marginalised areas. As they entered a Roma community in Transylvania, they 'were instructed not to make eye contact with residents'. Members of different ethnic communities refused even to speak each other's languages: the leaders of Superar Romania taught their young musicians songs in English, French and Chinese instead. …

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