It may seem odd to consider the violin as a powerful weapon. But in the capital city of San Salvador, El Salvador -- where brutal gang warfare renders the country one of the most dangerous places on earth -- close to 1,000 at-risk youth are battling the violence, crime and poverty of their community through a common passion for music.
The Don Bosco Youth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus -- launched in 2013 with support from the World Bank -- convenes young people between the ages of 8 and 20 who live in areas controlled by two prominent rival gangs. With the guidance of Father José Maria Moratalla Escuerdos (affectionately called “Father Pepe”), who conceived the idea, and the talent of orchestral director Bryan Crea, these youth foster harmony through -- well -- harmony.
“It makes no difference where they come from,” says Fr. Pepe. “There is no rivalry, no antagonism between them. During their practice, and especially when they perform, their unity and solidarity are fantastic.”
Alejandro Lopez, an 18-year-old trumpet player from the La Rabida neighborhood, agrees. “My school is in a violent and complicated area, as are many others in the country, and lots of my friends are involved in gang activities,” he says. “But for me, music has given me the chance to try and be a good man.”
Like Alejandro, all participants in the program were selected from schools located in neighborhoods with high homicidal rates. During the practice and performance season, they live together at the Don Bosco Industrial Polygon, a technical school where older youth have opportunities to learn practical skills for future employment. Today, more than ever, these skills are vital -- with 12 percent of youth ages 15-24 unemployed, and 41 percent underemployed.
In a recent Catholic News Service article, Fr. Pepe -- who is also president of the Salvadoran Education and Work Foundation -- says “the music program, in combination with such vocational training, guarantees jobs. We are trying to ensure that these young people can get decent work in El Salvador, so they don’t need to migrate in search of the American Dream.”
This past April, the ensemble made their international debut with highly anticipated performances at the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. -- followed by additional appearances, including at the White House and the Smithsonian Institute.
“Since boarding the flight in El Salvador and landing in Virginia, the magic was set in place for the young people,” says Fr. Pepe. “They had an experience of a lifetime -- like being in Disney World!” The orchestra and choir traveled thanks to the generosity of Avianca -- Latin America’s second-largest airline -- who provided a chartered flight at no cost to the program.
Looking ahead, Fr. Pepe hopes to expand the program to include academies in ballet, theater, fine arts and other areas of music. In further building the common bonds of artistic appreciation -- and expanding opportunities for youth to develop employment skills -- he envisions a brighter future both for El Salvador’s youth, and the country itself.
Mr. Crea agrees. "I think projects like this can have great influence on our country. A more educated person, one who can think, who can feel the spirit of art, will not be drawn to violence.”
The video below shows their performance of "The Syncopated Clock" by Leroy Anderson at the President's Theater, San Salvador.
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