More than Blind Hope: Measuring Social Impact through Music at the Batuta Seminar

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

More than Blind Hope: Measuring Social Impact through Music at the Batuta Seminar

Juan Luis Restrepo, Colombia-based musician and architect


Director Jorge Castillo talked with Ángel Moreno, a cultural manager, about Fandango Fronterizo and music in border areas as a way of cultural resistance. Photo: The Batuta Foundation.

Batuta, Colombia’s leading program for music and social transformation, was born 30 years ago against a backdrop of cartel-precipitated violence. As El Sistema’s closest neighbor and one of its earliest peers, Batuta created its own distinctive path—not just in response to Colombia’s unique socio-political environment, but also to celebrate its own rich musical tradition.

Over Batuta’s three decades of existence, though, one question has proven difficult to answer: How do we measure the impact of music in social contexts and avoid wishful declarations that “music itself will do the job?” And so, in celebration of its 30th anniversary, Batuta held an open international forum that sought to tackle this very question, hosting an International Seminar on Music and Social Transformation from September 28 – October 1.

Operating under COVID-19 restrictions, the Seminar was held in a hybrid format, broadcasting hosts, speakers, and audiences live from Ibagué (Colombia’s “music capital”) in dialogue with moderators, lecturers, and speakers appearing remotely from 27 different countries. Sessions were an array of panels, lectures, interviews, and performances that resembled “an amazing global TV set,” as one speaker remarked.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Vice President of Social Impact, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, talked (via Zoom) about justice in the arts with anthropologist/journalist Catalina Ceballos. Photo: The Batuta Foundation. 

Each of the four days focused on one topic: 1) the present and future of music education; 2) the challenge of making music in confined or limited spaces, both physical and symbolic; 3) takeaways from our new digital reality; and 4) building a new, post-pandemic world through music. Even though the Seminar was not intended to provide an outcome of agreements, group discussions revealed interesting similarities in our relationships to music during these pandemic times, which have been marked by both an increased dependence in technology and political unrest across many regions.

Much of our dialogue focused on the need to update graduate programs, helping students develop newly emphasized skills: entrepreneurship; developing new relationships with audiences and communities; cultural mediation; and communication and technology. The group’s chief concern was building equitable access to high-quality music education, resources, jobs, and recognition for young musicians of different backgrounds.

Participating projects addressed these issues in different ways, some by sponsoring and creating programs in regions where opportunities are limited, others by creating programs designed to balance exclusion—such as Chineke! Orchestra, which provides a space for students, musicians, and audiences of diverse backgrounds in the U.K. classical field.

Youth music programs also face the challenge of integrating diverse cultures and traditions while teaching music as a common language. When projects are built around the symphony orchestra format, questions about the colonial approach to music education will arise. On this issue, Duncan Ward, director of the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra, remarked: “It’s more important than ever not to see the boundaries and hierarchies of different ways of making music, but rather be inspired by them, giving ourselves the opportunity to listen to one another, to respect each other’s music, and to use this common language to enjoy each other’s company.”

Many discussions centered on how music relates to political action, both as a vehicle for and reflection of social change. Laura Paniagua-Arguedas, a sociologist with the University of Costa Rica, examined this idea through the lens of 21st- century Latin American song lyrics about exile and forced displacement. Her findings indicated a change in the migrant as a newly humanized political subject, possessing agency and awareness of human rights and global movements. Her talk got at something essential to the future of our work: people with multinational identities singing (or performing) their own stories and demanding respect for their contributions to the communities they now call home. A globalized world that goes beyond visas.

Fandango Fronterizo, a community music festival held on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border wall near Tijuana—where “only the wind, the birds, and music can cross,” in the words of Festival Director Jorge Castillo—reminds us that music can be a powerful symbol, and that gestures in the arts can “catalyze particular energies and reverse structural processes,” to quote Kennedy Center V.P. of Social Impact Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Other invited authors shared their research on rock music during Argentina’s period of military dictatorship and during Northern Ireland’s conflict period—revealing cross-continental similarities in how we use music to create safe, welcoming spaces that affirm hope and identity for marginalized peoples.

Matilda Nox, singer from Ibagué, Colombia. Photo: The Batuta Foundation.

Of course, the pandemic was the week’s biggest topic, and speakers shared many of their creative adaptations from the past two years. The pandemic seems to have sped up many of the processes that were slowly developing beforehand—namely, using technology to improve access to cultural goods and resources. Take the Global Conservatoire, launched this year by four leading universities in different countries, which integrated their experiences, resources, and student bodies into a shared online learning environment. In the choral world, virtual choirs appeared everywhere. Even in situations of strict confinement, music was being played and listened to all around the globe.

During those hard months, music was not only performance but treatment, as in English National Opera’s BREATHE program for Covid patients (or, to use a non-Seminar example, Bolivia’s Música para Respirar 24/7). BREATHE reminded us that standing on a stage is just one of many roles a musician can play in society. Music, and even sonic expressions like banging pots and pans, was there to remind us of each other, to connect us socially, and to allow us to express ourselves in an act of solidarity.

The many interconnected perspectives shared during the Seminar can be summarized in a metaphor from Jennifer Stumm, founder of Ilumina Festival: “Rather than a goal in itself, music is like a prism; what we do shines music on everything, music becomes a lens for viewing and discussing social issues.” Music is clearly a common space, shared by individuals and communities with seemingly irreconcilable differences. Artists and teachers who have devoted their life to music are messengers of this universal language—and the story they tell is a future to which we all aspire.

Colleagues interested in exploring these and other topics discussed in the Seminar are welcome to browse through the recordings of the event’s memories, available online on