A week ago Saturday I was leading advanced teacher training sessions in Salvador, Brazil, at the invitation of the excellent statewide social action through music initiative Neojiba. The city is beautifully situated, perched high upon on the cliffs at the confluence of the waters of the Bay of All Saints and the South Atlantic. Here make landfall the last breaths of the trade winds that a century earlier made this coast the first point of call for sailing vessels bound for the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn.
The Salvador of today is very different from the colonial port of the late 1800s. Home to some three million people, it is now the third most populous city in the nation. The explosive human and economic growth, unaffected by the economic downturn in the northern hemisphere, has exacerbated and magnified all the problems concomitant with urbanization and development; Eduardo Torres, Pedagogical Coordinator for Neojiba, tells me that Salvador is also the state capital with the highest percentage of “miserable people” in Brazil.
Struck by the baldness of the adjective, I ask: “How does the state define ‘miserable’?”
“Those without sufficient money to buy enough food for one day,” he responds.
It was a grim reminder of the magnitude of the challenge facing not just Neojiba, but any Sistema-inspired initiative in the world. Regardless of the copious rhetoric about “changing lives,” not much can be done when there are people going hungry; no amount of spiritual wealth can compensate a child with an empty stomach.
I suppose it is sentiments such as these that have earned me a reputation for possessing a “naturally doubting, sceptical and anti-bullshit mindset.” I definitely consider Marshall Marcus’ assessment a compliment, even if I disagree with his categorization of me as a “naysayer.” As of this month, this blog is now three years old, making it the longest running page of its kind on el Sistema on the internet. (Consider also that most blogs are abandoned within just one month of creation.) While the topics covered have expanded from those purely Sistema to encompass the many facets of the intersection of music, education and society, the core inspiration remains the work of the Venezuelan National Youth Orchestra network, and the multiplicity of provocative ideas it continues to generate. At the risk of a very loaded religious metaphor, I’m clearly not a Sistema atheist, nor even an agnostic. I believe in the idea, but I pair my faith with a degree of necessary pragmatism. Rather than doubting, I’ve tried to look for the deeper truths, the concepts that underlie Venezuelan practice. If anything, this blog has always been about “why it might,” rather than “why it might not.”
And when the question “why it might” is paired with the issues of hunger, the answer is at least superficially straightforward: feed them, or work with someone else who can. Many of the programs in the United States have already taken this step and are providing snacks to participants, under the reasonable assumption that a hungry child will have a very hard time concentrating on anything else except his or her stomach. But there’s a deeper issue here as well: problems of poverty, class conflict, educational or ethnic inequality, be they in the north or south Americas or anywhere else in the world, are by their very nature extremely complex in both cause and manifestation, and are deeply embedded within society. Initiatives like the Harlem Children’s Zone take the position that approaches to systemic social issues must in turn be systemic and comprehensive, involving multiple stakeholders, agencies and institutions with a multi-decade outlook. Accessible music education will be an integral, essential part of that solution, but ultimately, it will only be a part. I don’t doubt the ability of any organization acting in isolation to have some impact tomorrow: I doubt its ability to cause major social shifts in ten, twenty, or even thirty years time.
Far from being a criticism of the Fundabol, that statement is in fact a defense. Those naysayers who point to the perceived lack of social change in Venezuela over nearly forty years of the Fundación’s operation are being extremely selective in their choice of facts. The staggering expansion of the Fundación is a relatively recent development, and is a product of long-term, patient advocacy and trust-building within the nation. Given the sheer immensity of the social problems the nation faces, notwithstanding discussions of causes, the Fundación’s current activity and scope should in itself be viewed as a remarkable achievement. Even if its membership now exceeds half a million, that is still barely two percent of the population of a burgeoning nation, and we have no data or history as to what constitutes a critical mass for seismic social transformation – Venezuela will be the first to tell us. The Fundación has changed a nation’s attitude to music: now begins the work of changing attitudes towards society.
As for the rest of the world, in the spirit of “why it might,” I refer again to the Fifth Fundamental, that of connectivity. We as music educators have to have the humility to accept what we can and cannot do – and above all, not to promise more than the former in our passion and exuberance (or to borrow Marshall’s term, hysteria) lest we damage irreparably that most fragile of entities, public trust. What we can do we should, unequivocally, and that is music, but the greater lesson is for once quite simple. Collaborate – connect – or fail.