Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and How Music Can Change Lives

Written by

I recently received a couple of emails from an music aficionado friend with some links to a popular Puerto Rican group that had its hit song “Latinoamerica” (=Latin America) performed by a symphony orchestra at the Latin Grammy Awards Ceremony.  It’s not surprising the conductor was Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

It’s not surprising that “The Dude” would conduct a hit song with an orchestra….this was the Latin Grammies, after all.   But I couldn’t imagine another conductor, say, Lukas Foss or Rafael Frubeck de Burgos, conducting this song.

The song, by the Puerto Rican group Calle 13, is listed as reggaeton, the new style ubiquitous in the Caribbean, but it’s actually more akin to nueva cancion, the song movement in Latin America during the sixties that promulgated human rights and dignity, the same human elements that were being stripped away by dictators like Pinochet in Argentina and Somoza in Nicaragua.

Dudamel didn’t go to Juilliard or some classical conservatory to learn music.  He was a regular kid from the streets who joined Venezuelas’s amazing public music school called El Sistema (=The System)  There, along with other kids from normal backgrounds, he learned the violin.  But he also learned how kids playing music, even classical music, could be addicting, fun, compelling.  He wasn’t among kids who grew up with silver spoons in their mouths.   His enthusiasm and passion showed even back then.

And it was El Sistem that helped the young Dudamel achieve  musical excellence.  Perhaps because he could identify with normal kids on the street, and the influence of El Sistema, that helped him become one of the most influential and sought-after conductors in the world today.  We in LA are lucky to have him here.   Dudamel was the protegé of José Abreu, who founded the orchestra in 1975.   Gustavo was six years old then.  He enrolled in El Sistema seven years later.  Later he became conductor of the huge Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, twice as big as normal orchestras, featuring young musicians in their teens or early 20s.

There are even El Sistemas cropping up here and in other cities in the U.S.  We heard a lot about El Sistema when the LA Philharmonic hired him a few years ago.  I remember a news story where a kid was plucked from prison and given a contrabass.  A few years later he auditioned for the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, known for its string section, and won it!  There’s even a book coming out in January about El Sistema:

Changing Lives:  Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema and the Transformative Power of Music, by Tricia Tunstall.

Young people can be drawn to older “classical” music by organizations modeled after El Sistema.  Check out the videos here and you will be uplifted and inspired.  And it shows, once again, that music is important and can change lives.

Here is the original song, “Latinoamerica” by the Puerto Rican group Calle 13:

And here’s the version at the Latin Grammies with Dudamel Conducting.  Look at the performers in the orchestra.

Finally, put these two links into your browser to see how El Sistema is affecting young kids in Los Angeles:

And, this final link, the large Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Caracas, Venezuela:

In an age where young people are following every move of Justin Bieber, this story is truly exceptional and inspiring.