Jose Antonio Abreu, Venezuela’s musical visionary

In a country as polarised as Venezuela, it is hard to think of a public figure who can work for nine different administrations over four decades and come out at the other end unscathed. In a country as polarised as Venezuela, it is hard to think of a public figure who can work for nine different administrations over four decades and come out at the other end unscathed.

But Jose Antonio Abreu is such a man. Granted, he is not your average public figure.

A musician, economist and former cabinet minister, Mr Abreu is best known as the founder of the world-renowned music programme known as El Sistema.

Over the past 38 years, the scheme has provided free music education to three million children – to international acclaim.

“What Abreu and El Sistema have done is to bring hope, through music, to hundreds of thousands of lives that would otherwise have been lost to drugs and violence,” is how the director of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle, described Mr Abreu’s achievements when he proposed him for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite receiving many international prizes, the man known as Maestro Abreu has not lost his humility.

“The orchestra holds within itself its own capability to exist, live and perpetuate itself,” he told BBC News during the Japan tour of one of El Sistema’s renowned youth orchestras. refusing to claim credit for his brainchild.

Music runs deep in Maestro Abreu’s family. His maternal grandparents moved from Italy to Venezuela in the 19th Century.

There, his grandfather founded a local orchestra.

His grandmother, a passionate opera fan, used to translate from the Italian to the young Jose Antonio while listening to records of Puccini or Verdi.

His mother played the piano, and his father the guitar.

At age nine, he followed in his mother’s footsteps, practising on the family piano. It was the only one in his neighbourhood in Barquisimeto, the city where he grew up in western Venezuela.

He pursued music studies, but later moved to Caracas to read for a degree in economics in order to help support his family.


He worked as an economist for the government and was elected as a substitute member of parliament in the 1960s, but music was never far from his mind.

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They [the children] were so determined and so enthusiastic that I understood from that very moment that success was guaranteed”

Jose Antonio Abreu

Founder of El Sistema

“I had a deep frustration because I lived in a country that only had one orchestra, where 70% of musicians were foreign. Other countries such as Argentina, Brazil or Mexico had reached great musical development,” he recalls.

“That’s when the idea was born to organise a system to have at least one great Venezuelan-born orchestra,” he says.

It was 1975 and Mr Abreu was 35.

At the first meeting, 11 students showed up in a garage where he had set up 25 music stands.

“They were so determined and so enthusiastic that I understood from that very moment that success was guaranteed,” Mr Abreu remembers.

What started as an experiment has become the most successful and praised music education programme in the world, with spin-offs across the globe.

In Venezuela it is one of the best funded social programmes.

Young start

The idea is simple – children are taught from the age of three to play music for free during afternoon classes, with a focus on orchestral practise.

There are now 285 nucleos (teaching centres) around the country, often located in poor and violent neighbourhoods.

Many say that Mr Abreu’s contacts and economic and political expertise were key to securing government funding from early on, which helped the scheme grow so quickly.

“It’s very much a product of Mr Abreu himself,” says Tricia Tunstall, a music educator and author of Changing Lives, a book about El Sistema.

“He is unusual in several ways. He was deeply an artist and deeply a government economist. He combined articulation, vision and a deep spirituality… Those things are exceptional.

“I think he is one of the great visionaries of the 20th Century,” Ms Tunstall told BBC News.

Frank Di Polo, one of the co-founders of El Sistema and Mr Abreu’s brother-in-law, agrees.

“El Sistema maintains itself thanks to Abreu, who has been able to negotiate with all the governments that in 38 years have always funded the programme.”

“It was he who had the tenacity, willpower and vision to make out of a small youth orchestra a musical empire that reaches the entire country,” Mr Di Polo says.

Many co-workers point to Mr Abreu’s demanding and indefatigable nature as a key to success.

“For rest, there is the eternal rest” is one of Mr Abreu’s mantras that is often repeated by students and employees.

Life’s mission

Mr Di Polo, at whose house Mr Abreu lives, says he often leaves at 8am and is rarely back before 11pm.

According to his brother-in-law, Mr Abreu leads an almost ascetic life with books his only belongings.

El Sistema has become his life and mission, and the children he teaches are like a family to him.

Edicson Ruiz is one of El Sistema’s many success stories.

He came from a poor family in Caracas and it was thanks to Mr Abreu that he kept up his music studies. El Maestro bought him a double bass, tutored him personally and gave him a chance to earn a living by working in one of the professional orchestras.

In 2002, when he was 17, he became the youngest musician ever admitted to Berlin’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I grew up without a father, so he was my father and at the same time my mentor. Without him, I would have never had the chance to make music. He has been my inspiration,” said Mr Ruiz.

At 74, Maestro Abreu’s health is deteriorating. He often has to hold onto the arm of a colleague when walking.

But he says he does not worry about El Sistema’s future without him.

“El Sistema will keep faring wonderfully well because it is educating hundreds of thousands of youngsters, all with a great musical vocation, willing to work hard, knowledgeable of their mission and capable of carrying it out,” he says.

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