Musicambia is a domestic initiative to bring a long-term, intensive, musical instrument curriculum to the prisons and jails of the United States. Musicambia is inspired by the virtues and immense success of Venezuela’s Fundación Musical Simón Bolivar, or El Sistema, which promotes, throughout the country, the symphony orchestra as a perfect analog for a functional society.
In the past 8 years El Sistema has been bringing this profound idea of music as a means for social change to incarcerated communities of their country. In October 2013 I was invited by El Sistema to be the first American to take a tour of the Venezuelan Prisons where their musical programs take place.
This is what I saw:
November 30, 2013 – 4:31 am
I’ve just returned from the Institución Nacional de Orientación Femenina or INOF (National Institute of Feminine Orientation). Doesn’t translate well. Its essentially a former convent that has been transformed into a low security, low sentence prison for women. To be honest, my mind is overwhelmed with experiences from my first day in Caracas, to a very talkative (and hard to understand) Venezuelan guide, to a powerful and heartbreaking experience in a women’s penitentiary. It is difficult to make any cogent connections. I’ll do my best to retell my experiences.
The day began with my first views of Caracas in daylight at 6:30 AM. The city is surrounded by breathtaking mountains that seem to be swallowing the city whole. The poorest neighborhoods (Barrios or Cerros) are very generously sprinkled through the mountains like freckles.
Traffic seems to be an essential Caraqueño experience. To a novice eye the drivers may seem reckless but as I was chauffeured around by my fearless guide, Margarita, I found that cars are simply expected to take advantage of any available nook and cranny on the road. After all, what good are shoulders if you can’t drive on them?
After a 2 hour drive to Los Teques we arrived at the prison. While I was expecting an overwhelming amount of security I found it odd that the front door wasn’t even locked. At the checkpoint my viola case was loosely rifled though as I thought about all of the great places I could have hidden a shank or some valuable drugs. The surprises continued as I was offered a friendly greeting by staff and incarcerated people (internos) alike. I very quickly began to realize that the institution was much more of a community than I would have ever expected.
My first stop at INOF was through the Fundamusical (El Sistema) offices. Here all of the instruments for the program lay on a numbered shelf for the internos to retrieve whenever they would like. From here we walked to the building that is slowly becoming overtaken by El Sistema. One of the pillars (and reasons for its sustained success) is to never give up “conquered territory.” Bypassing the overwhelming colonial context, the idea is that once a classroom or space has been offered for El Sistema use the program NEVER gives it up. Not for a newer building, more money, or lack of use (of which there is none).
In the building housing El Sistema I was given tours of the private classes being given to all of the brass and woodwind instruments. From here we travelled upstairs to see the sectionals of the stringed instruments.
During the lunch hour we were required to leave but soon returned for a surprise masterclass that I was to give to all of the string players. This turned out to be the most inspiring and revelatory experience of the day (at least, for myself). Some of the students had only been playing their instruments for 2 weeks yet had a skill far above many of the students of 1 and 2 years of experience I have worked with in the United States. There is no doubt that the curriculum and techniques of El Sistema are successful far beyond any pedagogy I have experienced. More on El Sistema’s pedagogy another day.
On our drive home, Margarita explained to me how one of the internos I worked with entered into INOF. When she was 16, enjoying herself on one of the beaches of Caracas, she lost her phone (how is unclear). As a prank, her friends thought they would call her parents and proclaim that they had kidnapped this young girl and demanded a ransom for her to be returned. As her parents attempted to contact the young girl to see if, in fact, this was true, they received no response. Panicking, as any parent would in an environment so overwhelmed with kidnappings, they issued a report with the police. As the young woman returned home the next morning, perhaps not having any idea what her friends had arranged, the parents alerted the police immediately. While her parents were surely ecstatic with the fact that their daughter was indeed safe and secure, the police demanded adherence to the law. The law? Anyone that claims a false kidnapping is required to serve 7 months in jail.
If I can manage to make any formulated thought tonight, it is that many of these girls are young. Even at my 26 years, many of them seem to barely have half of that. If they are to leave this place and have any hope at losing the stigma they’ve attained while being there they will need the support of their family, community, and friends. May music be one way they can fight for this support and empower themselves to lead the life they want to live.
November 20, 2013 – 12:59 am
I wrote before about the mountains being peppered with favelas or barrios (shanty towns) and couldn’t have been more wrong. After having the chance to drive during the day through different neighborhoods in and around Caracas I realized that whole mountains are covered with these very barrios. In fact, I am only now realizing that these poor villages represent far more of Caracas then I had ever imagined.
From these barrios come many of the women I worked with yesterday during my second day at INOF (Institución Nacional de Orientación Femenina). I couldn’t write last night for fear that I wouldn’t give justice to my experiences. Still I am doubtful I can express the power of the work El Sistema conducts in the penitentiaries of Venezuela.
The day began with the same winding drive snaking through mountains and valleys with Margarita from Caracas to Los Teques. By now I am becoming accustomed to the frivolity of red lights and a new discovery, “black lights” (broken stop lights). “Why stop? No one is there.” The traffic is a part of life intimately known to all caraqueños. More winding roads, breathtaking mountain vistas and daredevil motorcyclists. There seems to be an unspoken competition to carry the maximum amount of people possible on 2 wheels.
Three quarters through the drive panic struck. I had left my passport, and thus my entry to the prison, in the hotel (something quickly being known as “Schraming it”). We either had to turn back, thus missing the full orchestra rehearsal, or cross our fingers that we can fool security into thinking we are nice friendly musicians here to help. Margarita calmly suggested the latter. No passport, NO PROBLEM! We entered without problems. Again I thought about all of the fantastic devices and weapons I could have brought, even sharing this thought with Margarita. She proudly explained the relaxed security for El Sistema has to do with ZERO negative incidences with the penitentiary programs in their 7 year history. Not something to be scoffed at.
Entering the prison and walking through catcalls of women excited to see a young man in a collared shirt (I thought to myself, is this what women feel like walking through construction sites? I think I saw a Saturday night live skit about this.) we arrived at the orchestra and choir rehearsal. Finally I was able to see the pride of El Sistema, the symphony orchestra. Amongst everything I had seen, it is the orchestra that represents all of the goals of the program: the perfect analog to a functional society. More on this later.
At lunch I had the chance to eat with the professors who are an inspiration all their own. If it weren’t for their passion and unbelievably positive attitude none of the incredible changes happening at INOF would be possible. Most of the professors are my age or younger and generally work a second job as directors of other El Sistema orchestras. It is a small miracle that they still have smiles on their faces and brilliance in their eyes throughout the day.
One of the last events of the days was a beginning strings class. The experience level here was from 1 day to 2 weeks. The only purpose of this class is to get the newest students to the minimal necessary level to join the rest in the symphony orchestra. The rate in which these musicians learn is remarkable.
What really called my attention in this class was a visitor. One of the violists (who also happens to play clarinet beautifully) had her 6 year old daughter visiting. At first there was resistance with security to let her daughter into the class but thankfully she was allowed. One of the most important aspects of what is being done in the Orquesta Penitenciarias de El Sistema (OPES) is the idea of building pride not only in one’s self but also in their friends, family and community.
What followed I’ll never forget. As internos began flowing into the classroom I was asked to play for them. I can’t remember a time when I was so nervous. Here in front of me were 50 people who had shared a part of themselves so personal and so fragile. How could I possibly show them anything more beautiful than that? First, I played, “El Nana” by Manuel de Falla. While I had known for some time that this spanish song was a lullaby to a child, NEVER had I felt the meaning of this music more than when I was standing in front of so many mothers who have not seen their children in years.
With knees shaking and chin trembling I managed through the music. Opening my eyes afterwards I felt the most intense and warm reception as I met the women’s eyes with my own. It is a musician’s dream to be able to give back to those that have given you so much.
Afterwards Margarita asked if any of the internos wanted to share anything with me. One of the beginning flute students with whom I had worked stood up immediately and shared these words:
“On behalf of myself and my friends I want to thank you for coming here. To have someone travel from so far to share with us what no one was willing to show us in the streets is so special. Even though we are in here this music makes us forget where we are. We can forget about the world below and just be free.”
As I’ve said, I didn’t know what to expect when I came to Venezuela. How can such an academic music have an effect on people that have lived a life apart from it for so many years? I don’t think it is the type of music that matters. We could have been playing Salsa, R&B, or the Titanic theme songs (which a flautist beautifully played earlier). What matters is that someone cares for these people and shares with them what is truly important to themselves. For musicians, it’s obvious that it be music. Painters should share their paint. Writers should share their words. Chefs should share their food.
As America stands independently as the incarceration capital of the world I feel stronger than ever that artists must encourage each other to share their spirit and their art with the people that are too easily forgotten.
November 10, 2013 – 1:42 am
In the Barinas Penitentiary I was walking around the building until I was stopped at a barred door along with other internos of the program. Behind us came a professor who quickly reached for his keys to let us through. As the door opened one of the violinist’s whom I earlier heard studying an A major scale smiled and looked at me saying, “Phew! For a moment there I felt like a prisoner.” This anecdote describes the story that I have been seeing and hearing over the past 4 days: The music and environment these people are creating is allowing them to forget their barbed wire surrounding.
Barinas is a city within a state of the same name on the western side of Venezuela roughly 6 hours from Caracas. Venezuela is surrounded by a crust of vibrant, green mountains lining the coast. Inside this crust is a valley of farmland, pastures, and jungle that runs along the entire country. Venezuelans affectionately call the flatlands la Llanera for its characteristic plains and peacefully flat scenery. The majority of the population are farmers that proudly create the best meat in Venezuela (I agree, more on this in Venezuela: The Food Issue). In fact, one of the internos is known as the “butcher”, not for grotesque reasons, but for the fact that he can cut down a cow into all of its delicious parts in less than an hour. How do they know this? Instead of coming to music lessons one day he was proudly and expertly dismantling a bovina before the eyes of internos and guards alike.
In the drive to Barinas I rode with Margarita, my wonderful companion on this journey, and Kleiberth Lenin Mora, the director and founder of the Orquestas Penitentiarias de El Sistema(El Sistema Penetentiary Orchestras). For six hours I was able to enjoy breathtaking scenery and slowly pick the mind of a man who’s vision has been unstoppable since 2003. Lenin originally played horn as a member of the Simón Bolivar núcleo in Caracas. Developing his studies outside music, as is strongly encouraged by El Sistema, he became a lawyer and began imagining the potential inside prisons. Taking 4 years to pass through the government, Lenin finally achieved clearance and funding from the Venezuelan government to start El Sistema núcleos in 3 Venezuelan prisons, INOF being one of the first. Amidst tremendous doubt amongst friends and colleagues the Orquestas Penetenciarias de El Sistema are now flourishing in 8 prisons throughout Venezuela with over 1,000 musicians and 160 staff.
The Barinas Penetentiary (Internaudo Judicial de Barinas) has very little to do with what I saw at INOF in Los Teques. The music building, which El Sistema has cleaned and remodeled so that the participants of the program take pride in the building, consists of no more than a large room with cement tables, 2 cubicle-like corners and a patio. The goal of the Barinas núcleo is not to create a symphony orchestra but a band for Venezuelan folk music like the Joropo and Merengue. The instruments taught are the guitar, violin, cuatro (a miniature guitar with four strings) and chorus. The professors supplement these instruments with their own: double bass, mandolin and harp.
While the program is constantly struggling with scheduling (as all teachers and administrators seem to do) the time allowed for El Sistema’s work has waned slightly. The internos have from 9 – 10:30 every morning for sectionals and practice time and from 10:30 – 11:30 for small band rehearsal and large “orchestra” rehearsal. Passing through the music building during these times is to walk through a cacophony of buzzing guitars, focussed instruction, electric energy, and laughter. This amazing community of people is proof that music can create a positive environment with the fewest possible resources.
Now what I am REALLY excited to talk about is my personal experience here. So that you have an idea of the kind of energy there is in this building I have to explain that after 2 hours with these musicians my face was twitching and cramping from smiling. Never have a I felt so infected with music and energy. Maybe it was the thrilling sounds of Joropo, or the powerful vocal improvisations of an interno thanking me for being there. Or perhaps it was the screaming support for one of the professors as he displayed the most virtuosic and body-moving harp playing I will EVER hear in my life. Let’s be honest. These prisoners are having a party every day from 9 – 11:30. It’s awesome.
Departing the institution after the first day I felt burdened. I came here to learn how music can change lives yet the music ended up changing me most. How can I possibly offer them something of my own that can come close to what they’ve shared with me? (sounds familiar? Just like INOF) So, I decided to practice. What? Bach, I guess. But man, the Jaropo is so much cooler. But I’ve got to show them something…
Nervous to perform for everyone on the second day, I began by playing alongside one of the violinists studying Venezuelan folk songs. One song after another, people started gathering around. First a bass player, then a cuatrista (a cuatro player), then a guitarist, then two guitarists. Before I knew it we were half of the musicians in the program. More music, more musicians.
The party had begun.
For the next hour the room was filled with the same virtuosic playing from the day before. Same virtuosic soloing, same stunning harp playing, more virtuosic mandolin solos, more dancing.
The day ended with more face cramps and a slew of picture taking that would have been a rewarding moment with the internos if it wasn’t for the dark cloud of you-know-what digestive problems that were approaching fast and strongly testing my body. I really shouldn’t have eaten that carne con salsa negra last night. What is salsa negra anyways??? Suddenly, I realized, “Wow! I need to go to the bathroom NOW. Shit. We are in a prison. Where are the bathrooms??? WHERE ARE THE F***ING BATHROOMS?!”
* * *
Discussing the program more with Lenin we began to brainstorm ideas of how to share the concept of El Sistema with the prisons and jails of the United States. Yet, as we discussed this the differences between the two systems began clarifying itself in a very scary way. While the average prison sentence for an incarcerated person in Venezuela is 1-2 years, it is 5 in America. The maximum sentence in Venezuela? 30 years. Apparently this is seldom applied and if applied even less often served. In Venezuela there are no life sentences nor death penalties. In the United states 3,287 people are on death row and over 140,000 are serving life sentences.
What Lenin and Margarita really couldn’t believe are the unbelievable costs we are willing to spend to keep our people incarcerated: $31,000 per year, per inmate. That is opposed to the $8,000 per year we spend on education per student per year in urban America. Last year the government cut spending by 1 billion dollars yet increased spending on incarceration by 871 million dollars.
While bringing El Sistema to prisons in America is an important task that will help change the lives of many, the real issue surrounding us is that of mass incarceration. If we really want to change lives we all need to take a broader look at what our system is accomplishing with such an overwhelmingly punitive system.
From Barinas with a whole lot of love,
November 1, 2013 – 6:00 pm
After driving six hours for what should have been a two hour trip (god bless the traffic) Margarita and I arrived at Tocuyito. Tocuyito is an astounding place to many Venezuelans. Every time I time I mentioned this prison (regardless of whether I told them I am visiting or not) people responded with gasps and an occasional “pffffhh”. In general, Venezuelan prisons are known for the unusual amount of power the internos have. The general population is often armed with unconcealed firearms, have open access to whatever drugs are desired, and have frequent visits from prostitutes. All this is paid for by the surprisingly large amount of money circulating inside. The guards seldom meddle in the affairs of the internos and especially avoid the pran, or the criminal ringleader of each prison. At Tocuyito the most famous pran of Venezuela, Wilmito, is currently running the show. I’ve heard rumors that he earned up to two million dollars last year alone.
Tocuyito has 3 separate prisons (cameras not allowed inside). The women’s prison was the only one that had been scheduled for me to visit. For reasons unknown till later I was told there had been problemas at the men’s prison and it wasn’t a good idea to enter. The other two prisons were for men, separated by maximum and medium security.
From the outside the maximum security prison is like nothing I’ve seen. The barrios I wrote about earlier seem like resorts compared to the complexes of la maxima. However, as I looked closer, passed the crumbling walls littered with bullet holes, I began to see air conditioners and many, many satellites poking out of windows. It turns out DirectTV is benefitting quite a bit from these hombres. In the maximum penitentiary I am told that even the guards don’t enter, much less an invited international musician that maybe be worth a large ransom.
Disappointed that the 6 hour drive kept us from spending more time at the women’s núcleo I began to insist in entering into the men’s medium security prison. After all, I came all this way to Venezuela, why get cold feet now?
Let me flash forward a few hours. After leaving the men’s prison I ask Margarita what problemas there were in the prison. “Well,” she says reluctantly, “a little while ago the music professors we kidnapped. But not for that long.” Now things were starting to make sense.
I didn’t see any guns while I was working with the medium security men but I did notice a surprising amount of independence. Guards hardly looked at the internos and the visitors and professors were dressed no differently from the rest. In fact, I often confused many of the internos for professors.
While INOF revolved around the symphony orchestra and Barinas around the Venezuelan folk music, Jaropo, Tocuyito was all about the Salsa. Loud Salsa. Somehow this núcleo had managed to attain a PA mic’ing system, brand new drum set, trumpets, trombones, congos, and a slew of microphones. “Unlike the other three núcleos,” margarita whispers to me, “these internos buy their own instruments. And they tell the professors that they want to learn.”
While there is certainly some heavy handed, under-the-table financing happening here, one thing is clear, these musicians exude pride in what they have created. Over and over again I was asked, “So, we’re the most impressive núcleo you’ve visited in Venezuela, right? Right??” The truth is, for as stunning as their musicianship is and as organized, clean, and decorated (yes, decorated with abstract art and colorful slogans with their band name “Son de Libertad,” Song of Freedom) their núcleo was just as special as everyone else’s.
It just so happens I had immediately come from Tocuyito’s women’s center which had the fewest resources and darkest environment I had seen yet. Dark rain water dripping from the walls into stagnant, green puddles, heaped trash surrounding every door, and rusty barred windows. Yet here in this center I witnessed the most powerful vocal performance of my life. After the entire group had performed a number of uplifting love songs and Christmas carols (Christmas cheer comes especially early in this part of the world), one woman, 5 months pregnant, came to the fore. Clearly nervous and emotionally charged she began to sing “Al Final” along a synthesized keyboard accompaniment. I made out the lyrics as I could, it was a song of fear and uncertainty for her unborn child. Every chorus swelled with the most potent emotion that knotted my throat into a tight first. As she belted through the final chorus I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep my cool. Yet, the moment she finished the room leapt to their feet and the singer burst (in every sense of the word) into tears. Never have I seen anyone withhold so much emotion and channel it into a most powerful emotional performance. This was truly a once in a lifetime musical experience.
Then they wanted me to play for them. After THAT. I did my best. But NOTHING could come after that.
So when the men at Tocuyito solicited a response that would bolster their self-promoted program, I really couldn’t tell them it was the best. It was great, but they were all great. They were all life changing moments for me.
* * *
I was scared to come to Venezuela. The people that were with me before I left had to deal with a very, very anxious Nathan. I didn’t know whether to be terrified, excited, or nervous. I was everything at once. I didn’t understand what I was preparing for. Still my mind is processing all of the experiences I’ve had:
The luxury of being an American in an inflated economy thirsty for dollars, profound music making day after day that is powerful enough to change the world, some of the largest slums in the western hemisphere, one of the most luxurious country clubs in South America, a resented government, crumbling infrastructure, breathtaking nature, riveting folk music, delicious food.
It has been a journey of extremes and inspirations. Now the time comes to convert this inspiration into a program that will help the incarcerated people of America. Thank you again for your motivating support. As I have been alone on this trip to Venezuela it has been unspeakably uplifting to receive your messages. I will keep you all updated with the developments of Musicambia and will continue to need your generous emotional and social support. Thank you.