Monday, April 1, 2013

Brazil: Week 5 - More Visits to ASM in Rio

This week I made 3 visits to nucleos of Ação Social Pela Música (Social Action through Music-ASM) here in Rio. Two to the Complexo da Tijuca nucleo, and one to the Complexo do Alemão nucleo.

Flute sectional at the Complexo
da Tijuca nucleo (not your stereotypical flute players!)
Both of these nucleos are located in the North Zone of Rio, away from the vast majority of tourist attractions and upper-middle class neighborhoods of the South Zone.  The Complexo da Tijuca nucleo lies at the entrance to the Morro dos Macacos (Monkey Hill) favela, next to the Vila Isabel neighborhood.  This nucleo has only been open since July 2012 and currently has about 130 students ranging in age from 5 to 18.  It is located in a fairly decrepit building that used to be a center for seniors but closed down.  The favela was pacified two years ago and Rita, the coordinator of the nucleo, tells me that things have been much better in the community since then.  She says that they serve 4 communities in this area, and like the Dona Marta nucleo, they meet 3 times a week for 3 hours at a time, each day comprised of two sessions, one for sectionals and one for orchestra rehearsal, with a break in between with snacks provided for the kids.

The biggest challenge they have had so far was in initially attracting students.  Most of these kids have never seen a violin before and never come close to hearing classical music, so when they went out into the public square to make a presentation with an orchestra of students from the other nucleos, nearly no one came to hear them at the beginning.  It was only after they started playing that people started coming and were interested.  They also took about two weeks going door-to-door telling residents about the program.  When the first batch of students came into the program, they were loud, rowdy, and rambunctious, but Rita says that music quickly taught them to calm down and has made drastic differences in their behavior.
Rehearsal of the beginning orchesra at Complexo da Tjuca nucleo

I had a very interesting informal conversation with the Simone, the conductor of the orchestras here.  She says that years ago here in Brazil they had nearly the same exact kind of program here as they are beginning here now with ASM.  Heitor Villa-Lobos, the prized Brazilian composer, had made music and singing obligatory in all Brazilian public schools back when the influence of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who wrote the famous book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was very prominent.  Twenty years ago, Simone was teaching in this kind of program, but for some reason it is has completely disappeared.  She told me that most of the children who come to this nucleo attend public schools that only have classes for 3 hours a day and are devoid of music or arts.  Even her own son, for whom she pays to go to a private school, doesn't receive music or art classes within the school.  She says that the reason El Sistema in Venezuela has been wildly successful is because it is a small country, she said it is the size of Rio de Janeiro state (although I don't know if she was referring to area, population, or both), yet has lots of money (I inferred that she means from their oil reserves) and at some point had a politician who was able to divert government funds to create a budget for the program.

I imagine that the politician she is talking about is none other than Jose Abreu himself as, at least according to wikipedia, "he served as a Deputy at the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress of Venezuela" and later also "as Minister of Culture."  This seems to hold true in the case of Villa-Lobos as well, as, according to Vassberg, while he was thinking about how to improve Brazil's music education, Villa-Lobos "had a chance meeting with presidential candidate Julio Prestes, who was so impressed with Villa-Lobos' proposals that he promised to support their practical application after he became president.  This promise, and the subsequent election of Prestes in March of 1930, provided Villa-Lobos with the incentive to formulate his ideas into a curriculum plan to e introduced into the schools of Sao Paulo."  Villa-Lobos then became director of musical education in Sao Paulo, and two years later head of musical education through Brazil.  Perhaps the only way to really make big changes through the arts is to have it happen through politicians that have jumped on board and believe that the arts are necessary for everyone.  It reminds me of a video I saw recently of an interview with the former Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating, talking about how none of the other politicians in Australia have ever had a meaningful emotional experience with the arts, thus the reason why they don't seem to care about them (and Lord knows he could just as well be talking about the United States):

ASM does receive a little bit of governmental support, but it seems that this is only to help the organization gain company and private sponsors.  In other words, they are pretty much in the same boat as nearly every other non-profit organization struggling to find funds, which is a concern that I've already heard a lot in my conversations with the staff of ASM.  In order to have something on the scale of El Sistema throughout Brazil or the US, it would take an enormous investment, and Simone thinks that it will never happen without significant governmental support and public policy towards it.

A similar issue came up when I was interviewing Julio, the pedagogical coordinator of ASM.  I asked him what he thinks the big differences are between ASM here and El Sistema in Venezuela.  Having been to Venezuela and seen the system first hand (as teachers in ASM have visited Veneuzela, and once a year the Venezuelans visit the program in Rio), he said that there they are so passionate and believe that music can change the world, and because of this they have public policy and a budget from the government to fund it, whereas ASM must constantly find sponsors.  Because of this, he is very skeptical, yet hopeful that it can grow here in Brazil to the proportions of what it currently is in Venezuela.  But I pointed out that ASM has only been in existence for a few years, and how big was El Sistema and did it have government support in it's early years?  Neither of us knew that answer, but it is possible that they are following the same exact track.
Advanced orchestra rehearsal at the Complexo
do Alemao nucleo

The Complexo do Alemão (The German Complex) nucleo is the largest of ASM's nucleos.  The complexo is a group of 13-15 favelas (depending on how you count it) which, according to Marcio, the coordinator of the nucleo, has about 250,000 people living in it (although wikipedia says it's more like 70,000).  It is one of the largest favela complexes in Rio, and still a very dangerous one, home to an infamous massacre in 2007.  As Marcio told me, the military moved into the complex at the end of November 2010, but it took nearly a year and a half to drive the drug traffickers out and install the police.  But even as recently as December 2012, there has still been violence and killings within the complexo.  Luckily for my safety, the nucleo is located outside the complexo in the safer, yet still poor, neighborhood of Inhauma.  Here is a short video I took of the view of the complex from the nucleo (with background music care of the advanced orchestra rehearsing "Asa Branca":

Rehearsal for the beginning orchestra at the
Complexo do Alemao nucleo
This nucleo started in the beginning of 2011, just two months after the military entered the complex and well before it was fully pacified.  They started it then because, as Marcio explains, they realized it was a project that could quickly help kids that were victims of the violence and traffickers by giving them a way to change their lives.  Marcio, who ran a social program in the favela before this one that didn't have music, believes that music is no more important than the other social programs here that do sports, dance, computers, or vocational training.  He believes that the more good options these kids have to choose from, the better chance they will find something they like or have talent for which they can pursue and change their situation.  And in reality, a classical music program is much more expensive than most of these other programs, because it requires a lot of things that the favelas don't already have, especially instruments, whereas if you want to start a sports program, nearly every community and neighborhood in Brazil already has a soccer field.  But despite being costly, he reminds me, it is absolutely a necessary program to have available for the kids who want to pursue music.  When the program began, the nucleo was housed in a 200-year-old farmhouse within the favelas, but they quickly realized they needed more space, as they could only hold about 80 students at most.  They were able to move it out of the favela into its current location in a Catholic Church where they can hold upwards of 200 students.  Indeed, this facility was the nicest and most spacious of the nucleos I've yet seen.

View of the Complexo do Alemao favelas
with the gondola going through it.
When I asked him what he thought the greatest success so far for the program was, Marcio told me that last December for Christmas the children from all the combined nucleos, got to perform for their parents in the Municipal Theater, the beautiful hub of classical music in Rio, and were featured on a popular local talk show.  Most of the kids and parents thought that they would never be able to see the inside of this building, much less perform in it, and the event was a very emotional one for all involved.  (I haven't figure out how to embed this video in my blog, but click this link to an article on the event, then scroll down and click on the first video.  You don't need to understand Portuguese to understand how much this meant to those involved.)  It was only 2 or 3 years ago that the complexo was gaining media coverage because of the war over trafficking and the violence, and now Marcio is so proud that these kids are getting media coverage for making beautiful music instead.

On Tuesday, I went to a fine piano recital at the university given by the American pianist Stephen Porter.  I talked with him a bit afterwards, and it turns out he is from Boston and actually has good friends in Northborough, my small hometown, where he frequently gives house concerts trying out his new programs.  Certainly a small world!

On Saturday, I leave Rio for Campos dos Goytacazes to spend two months there working with "Orquestrando a Vida" (Orchestrating Life).  I'm a little bittersweet about this move.  Rio is a great city, and there is so much to see and explore, so many concerts to go to, and I'm just starting to feel settled here and feel I'm making more of a connection with the people, of the city in general and of ASM specifically.  But on the other hand, Rio is very expensive and I haven't been able to focus on my work as much as I would like with all the things to explore here.  I've heard that Campos is a city that sees very few foreigners and tourists (and I frankly don't like being around tourists), so I'm sure there will be less things to distract me and I'll be able to get more work done.  I'm also really interested in seeing some of the Brazilian countryside through the window of the bus, and to see what life outside of a big cosmopolitan city in Brazil is like.  This is what I expect: if you compare Rio de Janeiro to New York City, both are huge, bustling, densely populated metropolises and centers of culture with many things to see and explore.  Both cities also have the states they are in named after them as well, and these states have several smaller minor cities that don't receive a lot of attention.  Campos is the 7th largest city in the state of Rio de Janeiro, with a population of 470,000, and is about a 4-5 hour drive by car away from the big city.  So I expect Campos to be a city like Rochester or Syracuse, about the same 4-5 hour drive from the big city, but a more industrial city that is not terribly exciting.  Likewise, from what I've read, Campos seems to be very industrial, with a big oil industry.  I plan on returning to Rio for my final month in November as well, so if I miss it too much I know I will be coming back.  But here's to the next adventure!

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