When we first started our music program with a handful of kids in 2009 we only dreamed of one day having an orchestra full of youth from the South Bronx. Now, not only does such an orchestra exist but it’s had the incredible good fortune to travel to Venezuela for a week of intensive study and performance with El Sistema, the world-renown Venezuelan system of youth orchestras and choirs that inspired us to start UpBeat NYC six years ago.
UpBeat NYC is a free community music program in Mott Haven now serving 150 South Bronx residents ages 5 to 21. We share the philosophy of El Sistema that the study of music is a human right that has the power to transform lives and should be made accessible to all. Through intensive musical training and performance we hope to open our students’ hearts to a world of possibilities, igniting a spark in them to work hard to seek beauty throughout their lives. Like El Sistema, UpBeat’s goal is not only to develop professional musicians but rather to create community through music and to empower our young people to shape their own lives and their communities, giving them the skills they need to succeed in whatever they may choose to pursue.
The Venezuelan-Bronx cultural exchange continues this weekend when the National Youth Orchestra of Caracas comes to Crotona Park for a free outdoor concert open to the public. The 160-piece orchestra will also be performing this weekend at the United Nations for its 70th anniversary celebration. It is noteworthy that this renowned orchestra, one of El Sistema‘s most important orchestral and educational achievements, will be holding its public concert in the South Bronx, a community rich in its own culture but so often overlooked and underserved.
The concert will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s visit to the South Bronx, where he made a commitment to help local people. The realization of Chavez’s initiative has been brought about by the CITGO’s Simón Bolívar Foundation, sponsor of Sunday’s concert and a strong supporter of our work at UpBeat NYC as well as a tremendous array of other community-based work in the South Bronx.
Every few years there is a buzz about the South Bronx being “revitalized,” about changing the image of urban blight created when the borough was burning in the 70s. While we may see some changes in the form of gentrification—money being put into luxury housing and restaurants to lure newcomers to the area—real, lasting change for the people who have lived and worked here for decades has been harder to find. More evident is this wave of new development’s glaring cultural and economic tone-deafness, ignoring the value of the area’s dynamic diversity and pushing longtime residents out by charging higher rents.
By contrast, the initiative begun here by Chavez has recognized and bolstered projects for and by the community. Through sustained support of grassroots organizations that provide services and advocacy for marginalized communities, CITGO’s impact here is significant. Against the odds, these groups have for years fought to meet the critical needs of the South Bronx: affordable housing, fair jobs, alternatives to incarceration, organizing against police violence and providing food and shelter to those living in dire circumstances. [Editor’s Note: The Bolívar Foundation also supports City Limits’ Bronx Investigative Internship Program.]
Sunday’s concert will be unlike any you have ever seen. The Latin-American selections on the program are played by the National Youth Orchestra of Caracas with electricity, passion and expression. The classical pieces are played with just as much energy and excitement. One reason we model our work after Sistema is because the Venezuelan kids are not being taught classical music to change them into buttoned-up musicians, but rather are encouraged to come into themselves and transmit that identity through their music.
Our students noticed this deeply personal expression in every peer they performed with in Caracas: Our kids wrote and spoke about the way their Venezuelan counterparts moved when they played, expressing their emotions, playing with passion. And they noted how easily connected they felt to those fellow musicians, both through their shared music and through their similar lives.
This youth orchestra will not look like the elite classical orchestras we are used to seeing in New York City. It is a diverse orchestra made up of young people of color. This is of huge importance for our young people to see – musicians who look like them, who come from similar challenging backgrounds. Come to be inspired by these youth, come to support these youth and come to support the movement that we are working to create here in the South Bronx to give everyone the opportunity to experience the power of and to be empowered by the beauty of music.
Liza Austria and Richard Miller are husband and wife and the co-founding directors of UpBeat NYC.