Monthly Archives: May 2012

Soul Music

I’m leaning on a desk inside the delightfully urbane London bookshop Clerkenwell Tales, talking to tall  lanky super intelligent Martin Rynja, Dutch owner of Gibson Square Books. I’ve only just been introduced to Martin, but it’s already a pretty intense conversation. We’re talking about how people who feel injustice can easily become trapped inside, and even consumed by, that feeling. The occasion is the book launch of Candace Allen’s ‘Soul Music, The Pulse of Race and Music’, a story, if you like, of one women’s successful attempt to punch through just such a potential emotional trap. Well done, Candace, I’m thinking, one more person who might easily have been ensnared in unending rounds of bitterness, guilt, and a whole host of other disagreeable emotional states has just made it to the other side. ‘Good for her’ you might be excused for concurring, ‘but big deal’.

Big deal indeed. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Allen has made the crossing by writing the most interesting book to date on the subject of social music projects like El Sistema, Buskaid and the Al Kamandjâti music school, reinforcing the realisation that the really interesting music education projects may no longer be springing from the likes of London, Paris or New York, or even Moscow or Beijing, but from places like Caracas, Jo’burg and Ramallah. Our world is shifting, it really is, and boy does this book tell the story of that shift – warts and all – with passion, zeal and candour.

It’s not perfect, and in terms of page numbers (a mere 188) it’s notably slight, but at least it has voice, a big strong opinionated one, the sort that you can’t avoid even if you want to, a sort of low rumbling Jessie Norman trill but with politics and strong intelligence thrown in for good measure. The result is a polemic telling the double story of Allen’s own upbringing and the relationship she carved through and beyond it with music, dancing through various musical styles and at least four continents, and revealing a fascinating view onto the panoply of the best and worst of the world’s music industry. And all the way through, as she heads towards visceral descriptions of the lives and music of the children of Venezuela, South Africa and the West Bank, is the background and foreground and everywhere inbetween ground constant hum and chorus of race, and of how we treat each other through the distorted lens that race throws up at us. This is a book that will appeal and infuriate in equal and opposite measure.

I turn from my conversation with the gracious Martin Rynja, and survey the room. I guess book launches are a bit like politics: like leaders, you get the guests you deserve. This lot have a real eclectic fascination about them. There is Chi chi Nwanoku, bass player extraordinaire, and here is an Irish film maker whose name I can no longer conjure, even though he wrote it in my crackberry at some point in the evening last night and I feel sure that we have business to continue. There is lovely composer Shirley Thompson, and as I go outside I am waylaid in a fascinating and stimulating series of conversations with Martin Campbell-White, and with the Iranian owner of openvizor, Abbas Nokhasteh, and a man whose father, it turns out, was a peer of mine in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in the 1960s. How time flies.

The man (not his father) is called Simon Hewitt Jones, and I see the next morning that he has written some comments about the book on no less (or perhaps I mean no more) a platform, than Facebook. “Just speedread in one sitting ‘Soul Music’ by Candace Allen.” he breathlessly posts. “Amazing wordcraft, highly personal inter-cultural perspective, devastating throwaway insights into everything that’s wrong with certain cultures, inspiring throwaway insights into everything that’s right with how the generation younger than mine is using musical culture to inspire hope.”

This, it seems to me, says it all. So enough of this. Just go buy it. Whether you like it or not, I can be sure in telling you it will do you good.

Soul Music, The Pulse of Race and Music by Candace Allen

Attention all Sistema Teachers …

I don’t normally treat this blog as a job search page, but when there are openings with one of the world’s most interesting Sistemas, I could perhaps make an exception. So any talented Sistema teachers out there, Hear This …

Click on this link, or see the details below:  Big Noise Jobs Available May 2012

Big Noise Raploch, Stirling

We are looking for inspirational and visionary musicians and teachers to join the Big Noise Raploch team. Based on the internationally celebrated Venezuelan El Sistema programme, our vision is to transform lives with music.
Experienced and passionate about orchestral music, education and community practice, you will have a conviction about the socially transformative impact of music for children and communities, and a desire to be part of this ambitious charitable organisation.
Positions available:

 1 Musician specialising in classroom musicianship
 1 Lower Strings (Double Bass/ Cello)
 1 Upper Strings Maternity Cover (may lead to permanent) (Viola / Violin)
Salary: £27,000 pro rata. For any further information and a full job and person specification please e-mail, visit our website at or call 01786 462923.

Closing date for applications is 8 June 2012
Initial application is by CV and cover letter. Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview and audition. All successful applicants will be subject to PVG checks.

Over to you ….

Not hopped on the bus yet? You better get going …

First a trick question: what links the following forty three countries? Brazil, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, Denmark, Armenia, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Spain, France, Austria, Sweden, Italy, Argentina, Switzerland, Netherlands, Japan, India, Croatia, Guatemala, Serbia, Qatar, United States, Venezuela, Ireland, Belgium, Bolivia, Norway, Poland, Viet Nam, Finland, New Zealand, Colombia, Singapore, Iceland, Portugal, Israel, Hungary, Peru, Taiwan, Thailand, Republic of Korea. (It’s not that they all have Sistemas by the way, though many of them do).

I ask this question because last week news was announced of the next wave of future Sistema directors and leaders to be trained through The New England Conservatory’s (NEC) Sistema Fellows programme, what was formerly known as the “Abreu Fellows” programme. This announcement followed a new agreement that was signed between NEC and El Sistema in Caracas in March earlier this year. And very interesting reading the new list of students made.

The new class brings together eight women and two men of reasonably diverse musical educational routes, ranging in age from 22–32. They include instrumentalists (actually a number of multi instrumentalists), a conductor, a world music advocate and one person with a lot of interest in dance. But a brute list of their various specialisms was not what caught my eye. No, what I noticed was the fact that they hail from four different countries in three different continents, and that between them they have already been working in social change programmes in Ecuador, Chile, South Africa, Guatemala, Tanzania, Brazil, and the U.S.

This amounts to a clear case of ‘All change please’. Once upon a time in the long distant Sistema past of four years ago, the NEC Fellows were essentially from, and experienced in, the US alone. Sure, some exceptions, but ‘essentially’. But that all looks set to change. NEC’s Sistema Fellows programme (by the way, forgive me my English English spell check here …), from what I can see is becoming increasingly international. And if it looks like that, well the NEC is simply behaving like a mirror.

And what it is mirroring is the fact that the El Sistema movement has reached a real tipping point internationally. Call it  phase three. First, as we know, it was developed in Venezuela. Then – actually from quite soon after it was established – its performances were exported, and latterly, over the last decade or so, exported to extraordinarily devastating effect. Think of this as the Trojan Horse phase: about 200 musicians out of a force of hundreds of thousands conquered hearts and minds wherever they went, leaving a parched thirst for El Sistema in their staggering wake. ‘Venezuela has one’ everyone chirped, ‘we must have one’.

That is where we are now. And the internationalising of the new Sistema Fellows list is simply an indication of where we are headed. I have no doubt that the next decade will see the emergence of a joined up international Sistema circuit that will make it the preeminent social change through music project in the world. Anyone out there from a country that has not yet hopped on the bus, well you better get going, for this is a project whose time, globally, has more than just arrived.

And my 43 country trick question? Well that’s you dear readers. (And also more evidence for the essentially international nature of the new El Sistema). Since I set up this blog in late February I have so far had readers from that exact listing of countries*. Sounds impressive? Well let me tell you: I don’t fool myself. Me on my own, that would certainly not bring such an exotically impressive roll call of territories in so little time. It’s the Sistema stupid. Meanwhile, some biographical detail on the new crop of Sistema Fellows below. Look carefully, they may soon be running a Sistema near you, wherever you are.

*September 2012 Note: that number is currently more than 70


Sistema Fellows 2012:

Cellist Andrea Shigeko Landin was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, where she took lessons at the Colburn School of Performing Arts. She went on to earn a B.M. in Cello Performance from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a B.A. in Anthropology from Oberlin College. Bridging these two degrees, Andrea spent the year of 2011 as an artistic facilitator in Totonicapán, located in the highlands of Guatemala, with non-profit organizations Artcorps and Ecologic Development Fund/48 Cantones. There, she worked with indigenous youth to design and implement projects that promoted environmental conservation and the continuation of ancestral practices, using music and art as tools for social change. Prior to her work in Totonicapán, she spent four months doing field-based research at the Centro de Investigaciones de Mesoamerica in Antigua, Guatemala, and served as an intern at the Guatemala Human Rights Commission in Washington D.C.

Born high in the Andes of Ecuador, trumpeter Carlos Roldán is a music educator and ardent advocate for social change. He currently runs the Music Education Program of the California Non-Profit Organization SAHLUD (Student Advocates for Healthy Living in Underserved Demographics). Carlos and his team of student volunteers travel throughout Ecuador teaching music classes to children in six impoverished, rural communities. SAHLUD’s influence also extends far beyond music education; its other philanthropic projects provide underserved communities of Ecuador with sustainable, free rolling medical clinics; public health education workshops; and provisions for healthier communal living. Participation is free for students and parents. He is working towards implementing many of El Sistema’s philosophies and practices in his growing music program in Ecuador.

Brazilian-born conductor Diogo Pereira has embraced two passions: music education and new music. He works for Música nas Escolas, an El Sistema-inspired project that has been transforming the lives of 22,000 children from Rio de Janeiro State in Brazil. Pereira recently received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting from Arizona State University. Pereira also holds a Masters Degree from The Conductors Institute at New York’s Bard College. He is an active entrepreneur. He is co-founder of Contemporaneous, a new music ensemble based in New York, and founder of Camerata Electra in Rio de Janeiro. He also served as music director at the Brazilian National Library, developing a concert series, O Som do Livro, with performances of scores from its collection. Currently, Diogo Pereira is supporting the development of social projects inspired by El Sistema in Arizona and Brazil.

Born and raised in San Jose, California, Elaine Chang Sandoval began studying the flute and piano from a young age. Elaine graduated from Soka University of America with a B.A. in liberal arts/humanities, and will soon complete a master’s in ethnomusicology at the University of Oxford. She first learned of El Sistema while an undergraduate, and has explored it in both her undergraduate and master’s theses. Her other academic interests include Soka education (The aim of Soka education is the happiness of oneself and others, as well as society as a whole, and peace for all humanity), global citizenship, multicultural education, music and identity, music transmission, applied ethnomusicology, and music and conflict transformation. Of Taiwanese and Mexican heritage herself, she has always maintained an interest in different music cultures, and is dedicated to progressing multicultural music education.

Vocalist and music educator, Elise Seymour, graduated with honors from Appalachian State University with degrees in Spanish and Music Education. She created a summer music program serving disadvantaged youth in Eastern North Carolina. Her music education continued as she completed her studies while teaching middle school chorus and piano at Martin Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina. After graduation and a summer study in Madrid, Spain, Elise moved to Charlotte and began her work with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO). This past year, she was the Education Assistant for the CSO’s Education Department. Her primary duties included her role as on-site coordinator and music theory instructor for an El Sistema-inspired program at Winterfield Elementary School. Winterfield’s Elementary program has increased by 200% to now educate 100 students a year. Children can study clarinet, trumpet, flute, violin, cello, music theory, chorus, and bucket band.

Jessie Berne was born in New Jersey. Her first instrument was piano accordion, which she came to love as a small child listening to her mother practice Eastern European folk melodies and Cajun tunes. She has a Bachelor’s at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and a Master’s at Youngstown State University. Her love of roots music persisted, inspired by her father’s involvement as owner of a small bluegrass music hall and producer of American music events. While in college, Jessie picked up the mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and claw hammer banjo. She also plays alto and bass recorders. Instrumental music notwithstanding, her first love has always been dance. She has studied tap, ballet, modern dance, swing, Appalachian clogging, ballroom, square, contra, salsa, and other folk world dances. Currently working as an Americorps member in social work, she is eager to fuse this social mission with her passion for music.

Monique Van Willingh is a 2011 University of Cape Town honors graduate in Classical Flute, with a Performance Degree in jazz flute. Monique has performed in orchestras, big bands, chamber and jazz ensembles. Winner of the Fine Music Radio/Pick ‘n Pay Music Award for Jazz(2010), Monique was also awarded the ImpACT Award for Young Professionals in Jazz Music by the Arts and Culture Trust. A member of the Grahamstown National Youth Jazz Band, in 2009 Monique was selected as Principal Flutist of the MIAGI Youth Orchestra, and will be touring Europe with them in July. Two passions central to her life are music and youth development. Reaching Youth Through Music (RYTHM), which Monique established in 2009, promotes South African Music among disadvantaged Cape Town youth. She has been involved in many youth music projects such as Sisters in Sound Mentorship, Jazz Camp For Female Instrumentalists, and Youth Life Skills Development Camp Facilitation.

A Virginia native, Rachel Hockenberry received her Bachelor’s degree in horn performance from James Madison University and her Master’s from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). She is currently a doctoral candidate at CCM in horn performance with cognate studies in arts administration. Rachel is an active freelance musician throughout the tristate area, performing with a variety of orchestras. She is currently the horn teacher in the Milford Exempt School District in Milford, Ohio. At CCM, she has held Teaching Assistantships in the music theory department and the horn studio. She has completed administrative internships with Cincinnati chamber music ensemble Concert:Nova, and OrchKids, an El Sistema-inspired program in Baltimore, MD. Rachel’s OrchKids experience resulted in her overpowering love for the Sistema philosophy. She is currently a teacher and volunteer with MYCincinnati, a youth music program created by 2011 Fellow Laura Jekel.

Sara Zanussi has a B.A. in Music from Luther College, where she studied piano and voice. Her experience spans three continents with The Stillwater Choir directed by Dr. Erik Christiansen; Pontificat Católica University’s Coro Femenino de Cámara (in Valparaíso, Chile); Luther College’s Collegiate Chorale; Makumira University’s African Ensemble in Arusha, Tanzania; and Sweet Adelines’ City of Lakes Chorus. She has directed choirs in Tanzania and in Iowa, and taught and accompanied for ten years with her business, Z’s Keys (, that won entreprenuerial awards for her Skype lessons program. Sara studied in Valparaiso, Chile where she also researched her undergraduate thesis, “Music is Worth More Than 99 Cents: Mapuche Music and Cosmovisión”. She was an Umoja Music School fellow and assistant program coordinator in Arusha, Tanzania where she taught and facilitated music classes at Tanzanian schools. This fall, she co-founded the El Sistema-inspired Advocates for Community through Musical Excellence (ACME) in Minneapolis, MN, where she is the Development Director.

Xóchitl Ysabela Tafoya, a Santa Barbara, California native is an active member of the music education in her hometown. For the past four years, she has worked with the Santa Barbara Unified School District as a music teacher at nine public elementary schools within the city reaching 700 students weekly. Xóchitl is a teaching artist for the Incredible Children’s Art Network (ICAN), an El Sistema- based music program at Franklin Elementary. She has also participated as a strings coach for Bravo! SBUSD Music Program and Santa Barbara Youth Mariachi Ensemble. She has taught string orchestra at KIPP DC: AIM Academy. In addition, Xóchitl served as visiting lecturer at Trinity Washington University and University of Maryland, teaching ethnomusicology classes. Xóchitl holds a B.A. in Music from Scripps College. She received her M.A. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Maryland researching the music of Bali. She is currently working on her teaching credential in music from California State University Northridge.

Another Venezuelan Maestro …

News Just In: 12 May 2012 – Felicitaciones a Rafael Payare! The wonderful 32 year old Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra French Horn player has just become the latest in a string of young Venezuelan conductors to win international acclaim, in his case by winning the Nikolai Malko Conducting Competition in Copenhagen. Here he is – extreme left of the picture nursing his French Horn  – whilst playing with Gustavo Dudamel and friends in La Vega. (Is the greatest picture of a concert you’ve ever seen?).

What’s Cooking in the USA?

Below is an article commissioned for the May 2012 edition of The Ensemble, newsletter of the Sistema movement in the US. Links to the newsletter can be found below this Blog.

Sistema USA: at the Crossroads …

The imposing Milanese Castello Sforzesco in northern Italy houses a fascinating museum of musical instruments; room after room of an astonishing variety of stringed and violin-like instruments that developed through the couple of centuries leading up to Stradivarius. Every shape of the nascent modern string family is present.

(A snippet of the extraordinary instruments on display can be found at this Youtube address, and a beautifully detailed tour of the castle here). It ’s a Darwinian sea of free evolution with dozens of creative tryouts before the modern violin family was finally established during the seventeenth century.

Now in case you’re wondering why I’m mentioning this, it’s not simply to expose the musings of an eccentric Englishman, but because that sensation of wandering through the museum’s rooms and marvelling at the variety of human endeavour on view was exactly how I felt at the recent LA Phil ‘Take a Stand’ symposium in January. What was on show in ‘Take a Stand’ was definitely the equivalent of the Darwinian evolutionary soup that followed the creation of life on our planet. And fascinating it was too.

The inevitable symposium group photo. Like Milan, like LA: spot the variety …

Armed with the luxury of being a visitor in U.S. waters, I tried to wander round the symposium with an open eye, to sense what was cooking in the U.S. Sistema world. And boy I can report there is plenty going on. What strikes me is how utterly different all the U.S. sistemas are, despite their all signing up to essentially the same set of Sistema values. Everything from big established metropolitan projects backed by world class orchestras and eye-watering budgets to small humble new operations in sometimes almost rural settings. From big formal classical projects to street wise bucket bands, and everything in between. Then there is the O0oomph of it; the U.S. sistemas are to be congratulated not only on their variety, but also their endeavour, application, enthusiasm and intent. The energy over the three days was palpable.  Of course, context is everything, and the LA Phil’s partnership with Longy and Bard certainly provided that, with the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Disney Concert Hall (a concert hall confection like nowhere else),

plus the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, and plenty of Gustav Mahler. Empire Dudamel was just the ticket. And so it was that hundreds of delegates from Sistemas in 27 U.S. states turned up, alongside curious visitors from 13 countries.

But what actually happened? Clear judgement can easily be a casualty as you get seduced by the heady combination of El Sistema USA’s passion and enthusiasm; yet underneath the symposium’s almost revivalist fervour there was some interesting undertow. The big subtext question I saw was, ‘OK, this is all great, but how shall we organise ourselves and connect together nationally?’ And with El Sistema USA, The Sistema Fellows, The League 360, Take a Stand, Longy, Bard, NEC and a nascent new Association, there’s a growing list of organizing umbrellas working at this question.

Far be it from me to give the answer, but I certainly have one observation to throw in: there’s such a great Sistema ecosystem going on in the U.S., make sure you don’t lose that delicate flora and fauna in the rush to organize. Don’t over-institutionalize. The best examples are often the least institutional, and the danger as El Sistema travels into cultures like many of ours – where process has an eternal tendency to smother ideals – is that old chestnut: Lost in Translation. There’s time for the models to develop, just as there was time for the plethora of proto-violins to become the Stradivarian item of sheer perfection that it still is today. I guess what this all shows  is that it’s not that easy to get the goods out of homeland Venezuela. And in this context, speed is no help. You chip away too quickly in the hope of successfully translating the model, and don’t notice that its centre is actually thereby withering.

Take the Renaissance Arts Academy. For me that was maybe the preeminent U.S. model at ‘Take a Stand.’ Simple. Powerful. Great leadership, radical ideas, and inspirational, joyful teachers. We have our marching orders. ‘Nuff said.

Note: The full Ensemble newsletter can be read here, thanks to Glenn Thomas’s drop box.