El Sistema: Over to Youby Jonathan Govias
/ July 1, 2011
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The music business might claim a long
history of involvement in peace movements, but its track record is less
than stellar when it comes to producing actual results. Woodstock was
billed as “three days of peace and music”—a promise only half
kept since the event generated more mud and garbage than international
accord. Efforts by individual musicians have hardly fared better. John
Lennon’s “Bed In” gave legions of fans a misplaced sense of Gandhian
righteousness while hitting the snooze button on their alarm clocks,
but the only harmony it produced was musical, not geopolitical.
And yet there’s a serious movement
underway to nominate a musician for the Nobel Peace Prize. Less than
one week after being named recipient of the 2010 Seoul Peace Prize,
Maestro José Antonio Abreu, founder of Venezuelan’s el Sistema,
was mentioned as a worthy candidate for the more famous award bestowed
in Oslo—and by no less a luminary than Sir Simon Rattle. In putting
forth the name, Sir Simon was somewhat apologetic, even defensive, conceding
that the conflict within Maestro Abreu’s sphere wasn’t a war in
the conventional sense, even if it did include weapons and bloodshed.
Sir Simon need not have worried. Past
winners of the Nobel Peace Prize include a first-year American president,
a former vice president with “deadly slideshows” (his words), a
Kenyan environmentalist, and a Bangladeshi economist. To say that some
of these choices were contentious is something of an understatement.
But what all these individuals have in common is that through their
efforts they actively changed the nature of their nation’s internal
and even external discourse, striking at extremism, natural disaster,
intolerance, poverty, hunger, dispossession and disempowerment—the
many and varied roots of war, rather than war itself.
The economist, Muhammad Yunus, is best
known for his work in microfinance. The environmentalist, Wangari Muta
Maathai, founded an organization that reclaims desert through tree planting.
These two in particular exemplify the idea that small gestures and small
actions (small loans or small saplings) can profoundly and positively
change society. The underlying ideas are neither sophisticated nor complex:
rather, it is their simplicity that makes them potent.
In that light, it’s difficult to think
of a more deserving candidate than Abreu. His idea was as straightforward
and as powerful as those of Yunus and Maathai: bring young people together
to share challenging artistic experiences, inspire them to cooperate
and collaborate, and they will apply the derivative values to every
aspect of their lives. Rather than viewing the orchestra as a bastion
of elitism or cultural colonialism, Abreu turned it into a framework
in which a broader sense of social responsibility is instilled. He rejected,
if not completely inverted, the established music pedagogy paradigm:
instead of emphasizing the development of artistic excellence in the
individual, he focused on crafting strong, supportive musical communities
first and foremost, knowing that they would in turn foster strong citizens.
Even with the public backing of classical
music luminaries like Sir Simon, the former government economist is hardly
a cause célèbre; of late, selections for the award have been as fashionable
as they have been controversial. The public debate around the choices
begs a larger question: what is the measure of an idea, if not the signing
of a permanent peace treaty? Another Nobel Prize winner—this time
for physics—once said: “Not everything that counts can be counted,
and not everything that can be counted counts,” but in the case of
Abreu, it really is about the numbers. Not the millions of alumni of
his program, or the statistics showing the extent of the positive social
impact, but the multitude of individuals across the globe inspired to
make a difference in their communities by emulating his example and
starting similar programs. Maestro Abreu has shown that the power to
effect change is not vested in high political authority or financial
or ecological institutions, but within the hands of the common man.
With this final article the 10-part series
concludes, but el Sistema in Canada is only beginning. Visit www.jonathangovias.com
to stay informed on developments both nationally and internationally.