Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and How Music Can Transform Young Lives

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 an 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 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 and 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 also how music, even classical music, could be addicting, fun, compelling.  He wasn’t among kids who grew up with silver spoons in their mouths.  Even then, as a teenager,  his enthusiasm and passion was evident.

And it was El Sistema that propelled the young Dudamel into total musical excellence.  Perhaps it was because he could identify with normal kids on the street, and the influence of El Sistema, that has made him 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 entered El Sistema seven years later.

There are  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 redoubtable 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 indeed be drawn to older “classical” music by organizations modeled after El Sistema.  Check out the videos here and you will be uplifted and inspired.  The music certainly doesn’t sound old under the Dude’s baton.   And it shows, once again, that music is important and can change lives.

A far cry from when I went to school and kids reluctantly joined band.  And a welcome respite from all the financial cutbacks that have reduced music education in the U.S. to a shadow of what it once was.

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, a short clip on how El Sistema is affecting young kids in Los Angeles:

And, finally 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 very inspiring.


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  1. tricia tunstall Said...

    Bravo Tom, for this beautiful post! It is a testament to the powerful ideal of Pan-Americanism, which has always been very close to Gustavo Dudamel’s heart and central to his mission.
    Thank you for mentioning my book Changing Lives. It was actually published last January, so it’s widely available now. Having researched El Sistema for so long, I’ve seen a lot of amazing music videos — but Dudamel conducting this wonderful song is new to me. Again, thanks for posting!