FEATURE: Music as the Language of Humanity, Love, and Connectedness

It wasn’t until I traveled through the prisons of Venezuela in 2014, to observe El Sistema’s work with prisoners, that I really understood the power of music. In Los Teques, a city outside of Caracas, I saw a child watch proudly as her incarcerated mother practiced the viola. In Barinas Prison, I saw men and women celebrating the infectious energy of joropo, Venezuela’s traditional folk music. In Tocuyito, I heard a pregnant woman sing a heartfelt lullaby to her unborn child. El Sistema’s work in incarcerated communities represents one of the most powerful environments for music I have ever seen.

The Venezuelan initiative began with Lenin Mora, a musician and lawyer who grew up within El Sistema and was a horn player in the Simon Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela. Lenin realized that Sistema principles could also work for adults – particularly in prison populations, who are desperately in need of an artistic outlet, a means for personal reflection, and a path toward community.

Since the first prison program was inaugurated, in 2007, the Orquestas Penitenciarias de El Sistema (OPS) has spread to eight prisons throughout Venezuela and served nearly 9,000 incarcerated people. The prison núcleos vary in the genres and styles of the music played, but all have one underlying commonality: music fundamentally changes how the participants interact with each other, their communities and their families. The programs are open to all; a majority of those who participate have had no musical experience before entering prison. The only requirements are that attendees cannot be under the influence of drugs or alcohol and must remain non-violent at all times.

The Institución Nacional de Orientación Femenina, or INOF, is a low-security women’s prison. When I attended the full symphony orchestra rehearsal, I saw a seamless collaboration between beginner musicians, veterans, and faculty members – a small (or not so small) miracle. Within months of playing their instruments, these women were playing music that would be a challenge for any youth orchestra. They were focused. And they were smiling. After the rehearsal, one of the women said to me, “Even though we are in here, the music makes us forget where we are. We can forget about the world outside and just be free.”

At the Internado Judicial de Barinas, a penitentiary in the inland city of Barinas, the goal of the program is to create a band for Venezuelan folk music like joropo and merengue. The instruments taught are guitar, violin, and cuatro; there is also a chorus. The extremely proficient professors supplement these instruments with their own: double bass, mandolin and harp. Despite the relatively modest scale of this program, the feel was deeply joyful; the prisoners cheered one another on, and cheered their teachers’ virtuosity with equal gusto.

In these programs, as in all Venezuelan Sistema prison programs, families are often invited to attend performances. In this way, prisoners share their musical progress with their friends, families and communities. The result is that pride and self-esteem develop not only in the prisoners but also in their families and communities, and the effects of the work extend to the next generation.

While Venezuela remains at the forefront of this important work, a number of programs around the world are embarking on similar projects for incarcerated communities. The Irene Taylor Trust in England, led by Sara Lee, has created a highly successful program based on collaborative composing. Creative Scotland, based in Edinburgh, is incorporating multiple arts such as painting, acting, and creative writing, as well as music, in prison programs.  Sistema New Brunswick in Canada is creating one of the most comprehensive Sistema prison programs in North America.

In the United States, I created Musicambia, a program designed to translate the profound efforts in Venezuela to the overwhelming incarceration crisis in the U.S. Musicambia is currently working with incarcerated men at the New York State maximum-security prison; the program has strings, brass, voice, keyboard, guitar and bass players. We plan to open a similar program in Allendale, South Carolina, where we will partner with local educational institutions to involve local community musicians and music education students.

In the words of one of our Musicambia participants in New York: “Men who have spent most of their lives in prison have very little hope, very little to aspire to. Learning to make music provides a lifeline and reaches us in ways nothing else can. And people who learn to speak in the language of music learn the language of humanity, love and connectedness.”

By:  Nathaniel Schram, Founder and Executive Director of Musicambia; Violist of the Attacca Quartet

For more from Nathan, including a full account of his time in Venezuela, visit his website.

Date Published: 1 April 2016

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