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Venezuela: The Pied Piper
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Venezuela: The Pied Piper
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Barrio de Paz

In Caracas, Venezuela the streets thump with hip-hop, Latin rhythms, and violent crime. But the city is also home to a remarkable youth orchestra system that has helped more than a million kids from poor neighborhoods discover a very different world: that of classical music. Only a few will ever become professional musicians, but many more will have their lives changed for the better.

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Segment 1

VOICEOVER
It's not just one of the world's great orchestras: the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is in a class of its own. It's the showcase of a unique social experiment designed to bring music to the masses. The players have been trained in hundreds of publicly financed youth and children's orchestras, and in Venezuela, any child from any background can aspire to join it.
TITLE
The Pied Piper
GENESIS DA SILVA
My ultimate dream is to be part of an orchestra. My goal has been to get there and I think that with the effort and the desire that I put in, I can achieve it.
VOICEOVER
Genesis da Silva is just 13, but dreams of being a great musician. Every day after school, she spends five hours playing classical music before going home to practice more. She and her friends come from poor families that can't afford instruments, let alone lessons. But, thanks to a visionary project, they have a chance to pursue their dreams. It's known as the National Youth Orchestra System of Venezuela, or as it's simply called here, "El Sistema," the system. It's an inspired program to bring the finest music to the poorest children of Venezuela's toughest slums. It might sound like a pipe dream, but it's already brought more than a million kids into the world of classical music. It all began in 1975, when an economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu hit on the idea that music could steer children from crime.
DR. JOSE ANTONIO ABREU [Founder, National Youth Orchestra System of Venezuela]
The happiness, enjoyment, and hope that playing music brings to the suburbs and poor neighborhoods, undoubtedly creates a tremendous barrier against drugs, and against violence and vice and everything that undervalues life and makes it miserable.
VOICEOVER
It started with just 11 students in a cramped hall, but it's grown into 220 youth and children's orchestras, most in poor areas where children had never been exposed to classical music. Every day across the country, 400,000 kids line up for free music lessons. Even the cost of the instruments is covered by state grants and private donations. The local director, Rafael Elster, insists the investment benefits everyone.
RAFAEL ELSTER [Director, Nucleo Sarria Music School]
In an orchestra, all the responsibilities are part of the success of this group. If the trumpet player plays wrong or doesn't come, or doesn't work as the other ones, the orchestra fails, as do these communities. The communities need people who do everything, and everybody works for the community. That's what we teach them. So we're trying to make them better citizens, better people.
INTERVIEWER
So you could do the same thing with sport, for example?
RAFAEL ELSTER
No, because in sports there's always a winner and a loser. In this nobody loses, everybody wins. So we have to make them feel that the most important thing is that everyone wins.
VOICEOVER
The system demands and gets extraordinary commitment from the students. After sitting in school classes from seven to one, they play music until six before they start the journey home.
RAFAEL ELSTER
So these kids work like 14 hours a day. When they don't, they just go home and sleep. That's no time for getting in trouble.
INTERVIEWER
Most kids in the West like to go home from school and play on the computer. I mean do you have to force these kids to play music?
RAFAEL ELSTER
They are poor people. They don't have computers. They don't have toys. They don't have anything. This is the most valuable thing for them, their instruments, their orchestra.
VOICEOVER
The contrast with their home lives couldn't be greater. Caracas is a city of crowded slums and violent gangs. We had to bring a bodyguard to be able to film in Genesis da Silva's neighborhood. Her building doesn't even have a lift. She has to climb 12 floors to her apartment.
GENESIS DA SILVA
It's very dangerous. People are very involved. It's always to do with the gangs. No one is really taking care of their life. It's very difficult.
VOICEOVER
Yet Genesis is happier with her life than many rich teenagers in the West, the beauty of music a daily antidote to the ugliness around her.
GENESIS DA SILVA
When you're there in the music, the most important thing is to know how to enjoy it, and to do it. It also helps to clarify many problems.
VOICEOVER
She's lucky to have a supportive family, sharing this small apartment with her mother, stepfather, grandmother, two brothers, two aunts and two cousins. But nothing can shield them from the mayhem below. In a recent shooting a bullet was fired through their window.
GENESIS DA SILVA
Many dead people ... many dead people between gangs. And there are always shootings, which sometimes lead to many deaths.
VOICEOVER
It wasn't long before we saw just how dangerous this place can be. While we were filming, a man was shot on the street. As we left the building, we were caught up in the police response. Our bodyguard was disarmed, I was detained and searched. Police have failed to stem the chronic violence here. Jose Abreu, who founded the system, believes music is a much better weapon.
DR. JOSE ANTONIO ABREU
Without a doubt, this is a program that transforms the quality of life in a huge way and produces enormous sentiment in the personal and collective lives of children and young people.
VOICEOVER
Leswi Pantoja, who's 26, knows that well. He grew up in a poor slum where he ran with a youth gang.
LESWI PANTOJA [Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra]
I have many friends who aren't alive any more. They're dead. Sometimes I meet friends in the street and I ask them how they are. They're just all right. They don't have real jobs. They manage to survive, but that's all. That's their life.
VOICEOVER
Leswi Pantoja's life took a different path after he joined the system. Today he's a professional musician. Six years ago, he was selected to join the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. It's made up exclusively of the best students to pass through the system.
LESWI PANTOJA
I think it's because we've known each other for 15 years, since we were very young. We've grown up together as a family, little by little. It's one of the secrets of why the orchestra sounds as it does, is seen as it is, and triumphs in this way.
VOICEOVER
Like all the players, Leswi Pantoja grew up to a Latin beat. When he's not performing with the orchestra, he still plays Venezuelan salsa with his own band. Before the system, poor neighborhoods like his never even heard classical music.
LESWI PANTOJA
What you hear is Latin music, salsa and merengue. Classical doesn't really exist.
VOICEOVER
Nowadays, every community can enjoy the music of the streets and the concert halls.
DR. JOSE ANTONIO ABREU
The wide diversity breaks down artificial barriers between classical and popular music. Society is transformed through an artistic experience that brings hope and an aesthetic dimension to life.
VOICEOVER
Only a handful who finish the system each year are chosen for Simon Bolivar, the peak of the youth orchestras. But Genesis da Silva is sure she can do it. As she watches the orchestra rehearse, she becomes even more determined to perfect her craft.
GENESIS DA SILVA
You don't try to imitate them, or to be like them, but you make an effort to excel yourself, to get where they are.
VOICEOVER
An hour later, it's her turn to shine. After weeks of practice, Genesis's school group will be performing a concert for their parents and friends. Everything is done as cheaply as possible, but Rafael Elster takes any opportunity to plead for more.
RAFAEL ELSTER
I'm asking to build a new building of 1,000 square meters to house 1,500 children and to purchase 300 musical instruments.
VOICEOVER
It's an enthusiastic if uneven performance. Some of the children show exceptional talent, some just play along for fun. Only a few will become professional musicians, but the system will leave a lifelong legacy for all.
RAFAEL ELSTER
The most important thing is that they believe in themselves. They believe that everything they start they can take it to a higher level, they can reach different goals in life.
TITLE
[end credits]