02242020What's Hot:

Venezuela Musicians Rise Up After Violist, 18, Is Killed at Protest

Yet no group has been tested quite like Venezuela’s classical musicians, who for years have been drawn from the country’s working-class barrios.

They belong to the Simón Bolívar Musical Foundation, known to Venezuelans simply as El Sistema, Spanish for “the System.” For four decades, the state-financed program trained hundreds of thousands of musicians across social classes, an achievement unheard-of anywhere else in Latin America and one that has left the music world in envy.

El Sistema’s youth orchestra toured the United States during years of tense relations between the countries.. Its young prodigy, Gustavo Dudamel, became an international star and now leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A source of national pride, the classical music program was one of the few institutions that seemed exempt from Venezuela’s growing polarization, and was protected by successive governments in return.

“In its 42 years, El Sistema somehow managed to keep an impartial position,” said Ollantay Velásquez, the director of Mr. Cañizales’s orchestra. “It has stayed that way until today.”

Yet the young man’s death is rupturing that neutrality, underlining the kinds of dilemmas faced across Venezuela’s institutions as street protests approach their third month, with at least 67 people dead in the turmoil.

From Los Angeles, Mr. Dudamel broke his silence about the protesters’ demands, dedicating a concert in Mr. Cañizales’s memory from the stage in May and issuing a fiery statement against the government’s repression of demonstrators.

“We must stop ignoring the just cry of the people suffocated by an intolerable crisis,” Mr. Dudamel warned. “I raise my voice against violence. I raise my voice against repression.”

In Venezuela, orchestra members have played memorial concerts for Mr. Cañizales, using performances to denounce government officials as traitors. Other musicians say they are now following Mr. Cañizales’s example in the streets as well, heading into the front lines of protests with their instruments in tow.


Wuilly Arteaga, a friend of Mr. Cañizales’s, played the violin in front of riot police officers during a protest against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas in late May. Credit Luis Robayo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On a recent afternoon, Wuilly Arteaga, 23, stood in the center of a crowd of demonstrators, his violin on his shoulder. His case was strapped to his back, his helmet painted with the colors of the Venezuelan flag. He played the national anthem.

Explosions of tear gas canisters erupted between the notes he played. Finally, other protesters grabbed him by a shoulder and dragged him back from the security forces.

“I remembered my friend Armando,” Mr. Arteaga said afterward. “I have spent ages now playing and living on the streets, and I see that so many talented Venezuelans have had to eat from the trash.”

Anthony, another classical musician, now spends his days on the front lines of the clashes with security forces, dodging tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. Some of the instructors have told him not to go, he said.

“They’ve begged us not to become polarized, not to show our political stripes,” said Anthony, who asked that his full name not be used because he feared reprisals. “Many of us go out concealed.”

Like most teenagers, Mr. Cañizales grew up under former President Hugo Chávez and his leftist movement, which took power in Venezuela the year he was born.

Mr. Chávez, a populist buoyed by oil prices that skyrocketed after he came to power, used the money to reshape the country’s political and economic order, expropriating foreign assets, building thousands of public housing units and schools, and directing profits from Venezuela’s state oil company toward the poor.

El Sistema was founded long before Mr. Chávez’s movement, in 1975, by José Antonio Abreu, a conductor working with an initial class of 11 students in a parking garage. But Mr. Chávez soon saw it as a driver of change in the country’s poorest neighborhoods and a way to raise Venezuela’s cultural profile abroad.

“Revolutionary Venezuela is aware of the infinite value of music as a bastion in the fight for equality and happiness,” Mr. Chávez wrote in a 2011 letter to Mr. Abreu.

Around age 10, Mr. Cañizales took up the viola. Though he had planned to be a doctor one day, the instrument became an obsession for him — no less than “his life,” recalled Jesús Pérez, his El Sistema professor.

He loved Beethoven, said those who knew him. He practiced Georg Philipp Telemann, a Baroque composer whose Viola Concerto Mr. Cañizales once played in a recital, perhaps with a bit of stage fright, missing a few notes.

“He played for the love of it,” said Mr. Velásquez, the orchestra conductor.

Mr. Chávez died in 2013, replaced by a handpicked but much less popular successor, Nicolás Maduro, who soon was saddled by falling oil prices. By 2015, basic foods, once imported by the government cheaply on oil dollars, had become scarce, demoralizing the country.

El Sistema was beginning to suffer as well.

Salaries of teachers were eroded by inflation, which reached triple digits. Basic maintenance of the main concert hall in the capital, Caracas, was neglected, and it suddenly flooded one night in 2016. Cascades of water dripped on the timpani drums stored there.


Gustavo Dudamel, center, an alumnus of El Sistema who leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra in concert in San Francisco in 2012. Credit Leo Ramirez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Just to put strings on a viola became impossible,” recalled Mr. Pérez, the teacher.

Yet Mr. Cañizales “was a boy of few words,” Mr. Pérez said. The teenager kept his own counsel, and few said they had known he was considering joining the street protests when they began to erupt in late spring.

May 3 was a tumultuous day in Caracas. An armored vehicle drove into a crowd of protesters who attacked it. Four opposition lawmakers were wounded in clashes. Even the leftist attorney general came out that day to condemn the police repression as excessive.

In another part of the city, young protesters were throwing rocks at a long line of national guardsmen. In a video clip, recorded by a Venezuelan journalist for an online news site, a lone figure wearing a backpack and a helmet appears, approaching the guardsmen from a distance with his arms outstretched. The man is Mr. Cañizales.

There is no record of the shooting. The next clip recorded by the journalist, Luis Olavarrieta, shows the young musician being rushed into an ambulance.

Source: NYT > World

comments powered by HyperComments

More on the topic