From the Ship

El Sistema uses a social system of beautiful melodies to change the future

Oct 5, 2019

On September 22, Peace Boat’s 102nd Global Voyage arrived in Manzanillo, Mexico, where it welcomed on board eight musicians from the Municipal Symphonic Orchestra of Caracas and El Sistema.

Known officially as Foundación Musical Simón Bolívar (FMSB), El Sistema (translated into English as “the system”) is a Venezuelan music educational organization that uses choirs and symphony orchestras as a system to foster better social organization and community development. It was founded by Venezuelan Maestro José Antonio Abreu in 1975, and though its first incarnation was held in a parking structure with only 11 students, El Sistema has gone on to provide free music education to thousands of children in need, garnering a 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nomination in the process, and now encompasses 1210 orchestras in Venezuela and 400 music centres worldwide. Maestro Abreu believes that by cultivating certain abilities and attitudes, orchestras have the potential to foster growth and positive change for both individuals and their communities. Many alumni of El Sistema go on to join orchestras such as the Municipal Symphonic Orchestra of Caracas.

As an extension of Peace Boat and El Sistema’s close relationship, several musicians were invited on board to mark the 102nd Global Voyage’s arrival in La Guaira, Venezuela. “How lovely to come back to Peace Boat, my second home!” said Marlen Larez, a violinist in the Municipal Symphonic Orchestra of Caracas. Ms. Larez joined Peace Boat’s 94th Global Voyage in 2017 and returned to participate in onboard concerts, choral workshops, and various presentations.

Also joining the voyage was Orchestra of Caracas musician Josbel Puche, who introduced Peace Boat participants to an innovative training program called Paper Violin. As classical instruments are very expensive, Paper Violin guides participants to construct and pratice using instruments made of paper, a material to which almost all children have access. Necessity inspired her invention. “I wanted to start an orchestra,” said Ms. Puche, “but didn’t have enough instruments.” It’s also a way to involve parents in their children’s education: because the construction process is not easy for children to do alone, older family members are encouraged to help.   

In addition to founding El Sistema’s Paper Orchestra program, Ms. Puche is both an alumni and a member of their faculty. “El Sistema is more than just an orchestra for children.” she says. “El Sistema is a family for them, where they can feel protected and meet adults they can trust.” On the 102nd Global Voyage, six students in Peace Boat’s onboard Montessori Programme learned to make paper violins, which they used to practice on and perform with in the Orchestra of Caracas’ final concert on Oct 2 , 2019. Participant Takahashi Sekiko said, “I was very impressed by the Paper Violin program. I’ve never thought of using paper to make a violin. But I’d really like to make one with my four-year-old grandson when I get back to Japan.”

Throughout their two-day stay in Venezuela, Peace Boat participants visited many significant destinations, including the El Sistema academy in the capital city of Caracas, where they had the privilege to present a large donation of musical instruments brought from Japan. The visit culminated in a final concert after which participants exchanged an emotional farewell with their new Venezuelan friends. All involved look forward to their next visit to this “país hermosa” – a beautiful country still alive with the dreams of Simon Bolivar despite its numerous challenges – and to the return of their Venezuelan family on board a future Peace Boat voyage.

Article by Sugiyama Mari; all photos by Yuruki Shiho.