El Sistema’s Emerging Power as an Agent of Cultural Diplomacy

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El Sistema’s Emerging Power as an Agent of Cultural Diplomacy

Maria Claudia Parias Durán, Executive President, Fundación Nacional Batuta, Colombia

Maria Claudia Parias Durán (left) and Maria Guerrero.

On one of the hottest days of this year’s historically hot summer, I was privileged to take part in an important step forward for global cultural diplomacy.

During the 2022 Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra (SEYO) summer residency in Madrid, Spain, while ensembles of children and youth from across the European continent filled the city’s auditoriums and squares with their melodies and chords, I sat down with Maria Guerrero, Founder/Director of Madrid’s Fundación Acción por la Música in Madrid. The program uses the El Sistema model to help change an increasingly complex social geography.

Fundacíon Accíon began about ten years ago. The program I represent is some decades older: it is my very great honor to preside over Fundación Nacional Batuta of Colombia. Batuta is the world’s second incarnation (after Venezuela’s) of El Sistema; we reach more than 40,000 boys and girls every year, many of them direct victims of the armed conflict or living in extreme social vulnerability. (More than one million Colombians have passed through our Music Centers; 7% are professional musicians today.)

On that hot day in July, recognizing that our programs, with their varying strengths and experiences, could learn and grow a great deal from a mutually supportive partnership, Maria and I created and signed a Framework Agreement between her organization and mine.

I believe that our signing of this Framework Agreement represents a new phase of El Sistema’s global significance. Most readers know El Sistema as the ground-breaking experiment to use music as an engine for inclusion, created in Venezuela nearly fifty years ago by Maestro José Antonio Abreu. The experiment consisted in the design of pedagogies based on the daily collective exercise of music, a practice that has changed how we understand the meaning of artistic training—from a model of years-long one-on-one training of world-class performers to an option that allows any young person not only to acquire musical skills but also to find in music a space for human encounters, collective creation, and social mobility.

Now, increasingly, we are seeing that not only did Maestro Abreu create a tool for individual and community transformation; he also created the one of the world’s most powerful tools for cultural diplomacy—and the only one originating from the shores of the Caribbean. El Sistema is becoming an inspirational engine for partnerships and alliances between multiple cultural organisations that share best practices to address the social issues of today’s world.

The alliance Maria and I formed this summer is just such a collaboration. With the decisive support of the Global Leaders Program, we are evolving a joint work path between our two entities, sharing our mutual knowledge in areas such as pedagogy and training methodologies, impact measurement, planning strategies, advocacy strategies, institutional development, project reinvention after the pandemic, institutional innovation exercises, and the design of joint musical projects.

This arrangement supports a wealth of mutual learning between our two organizations. It allows Batuta to share our learning of 30+ years with a sister organization that is at an earlier stage in its path. And we at Batuta, in turn, can learn from experiences and initiatives of Acción Social por la Música—one impressive example of which was their hosting of the SEYO gathering last summer.

To be more specific: the agreement between Batuta and Acción Social por la Música will allow us:

  • to share musical training methodologies for different age groups;
  • to work on pedagogies valuable within the framework of training trainers;
  • to carry out joint musical projects (artistic residencies with boys and girls from both shores to prepare and circulate repertoires that represent musical challenges);
  • to jointly identify data variables in impact metrics, the components of our students’ information systems, and the proper use of communication technologies to strengthen our comprehensive monitoring systems;
  • and to jointly compare, share, and improve the strategic frameworks for action, to increase advocacy capacity and articulate work with international cultural networks.

I’ll conclude with a few quotes about the power of music as cultural diplomacy, from some of the irrepressible young SEYO musicians I met in Madrid last July. “I don’t care about the heat at all,” said Joshua, a 19-year-old violinist from London’s Nucleo Project. “Music is a catalyst for change; it gives us new ways to experience other people and opportunities.”

Said 13-year-old Spanish bass player Juan David, “Playing with others is amazing because I can learn from them all.”

Violinist Natalia, 14, also from Spain, said, “Music is a language without words…it brings new cultures. You feel enriched.”

And cellist Francesca from the Dominican Republic, who is 15, said that being at the residency “means an opportunity to grow as a person and an artist.”

These young people are already feeling the power of musical collaboration as cultural diplomacy. It’s my hope that more and more, like-spirited organizations across the world will tap this power by engaging in partnerships and collaborations that create synergy, expansion, and mutual learning in our field.