Government-funded music programs are trying to keep Medellin´s youth from falling into criminal activities or into the clutches of Colombia´s illegal armed groups.
There are some 586,000 people between the ages of 12 and 29 in this city, which was once the epicenter of drug violence, and 70 percent of them are from low income households.
“Children are increasingly in the ranks of illegal armed groups because they are more easily influenced and they don´t cost the groups much,” said a recent report by a government agency focused on Medellin residents´ rights.
In 1996, authorities had proven unable to stem drug violence and crime from reaching the city´s youth.
So the city government that year tried a different approach, and created the Medellin Music School Network so children would have opportunities to develop new skills and distance themselves from the violence on the streets, Colombia´s Culture Minister Paula Moreno told Latinamerica Press.
“We arrive in the neighborhood, setting up in rented houses, to motivate the kids to develop their musical skills,” said Carlos Valencia, the program´s coordinator. “Some reach us out of curiosity and others are forced by their parents. The children and youths that come to our school are generally at a crossroads where they are being offered many choices, some of them unhealthy and others very much healthy, like ours. A citizens´ responsibility is the best thing this program can build.”
Students are mostly from low-income households, between 7 and 24 years of age, who receive 55,000 hours of music training a year, said Valencia, learning to play both string and wind instruments.
“These schools are very important in the inner city neighborhoods because a student makes friends, learns teamwork, how to work with a collective, and responsibility with taking care of the instrument the school provides him or her,” said Valencia.
Currently, there are 4,621 students in the program, 1,100 of whom are already playing in orchestras, symphonies, jazz schools and youth choirs.
Working with a vulnerable population
Other similar programs seek to use music to help young people in the area of their personal development.
The government-run National Baton Foundation and the Medellin Mayor´s Office work with 4,000 young children aged 2-7 in early music education, explained the music coordinator for the program, Paulo César Parra.
“The kids feel like better people,” said Parra. “The displaced population has these spaces; they´re getting a better quality of life. The music lets them get away from the violence they´ve seen and experienced in their short lives.”
The municipal program Altavoz, or “loudspeaker” in English, promotes youth bands, and since 2007, has held literary, photography, theatre and other cultural events to keep children away from violence.
“We work with 280 rock, metal, punk, reggae, ska and hip-hop bands that are all still learning,” said Jaime Restrepo, coordinator of Youth Policy at the Medellin Mayor´s Office. Every year, their students conclude in a large concert.
“They record demo tapes and have the chance to present them to different sectors of the music industry and market,” he said.
Since 2004, as many as 1,200 young people have participated in the three-day music festival.
“The festival is not just to support the bands, but also to speak out about how to respect differences and appreciate musical diversity”.
Art against violence
“Four years ago, my father took me to the [music school] as punishment,” remembered Moisés Mendoza, a 16-year-old, at a lutherie workshop set up during the Third Ibero-American Culture Conference that was hosted by Medellin in early July.
“I liked the violin. Then I tried the cello and a year ago I went back to the violin,” he said, adding that “if it wasn´t for the Network, I never would have played”.
“My parents would have never been able to buy me an instrument or pay for classes,” he said. His dream is to play a violin made “with his own hands.”
“A child who gets into music is unlikely to get into trouble and he or she will help his or her family to see life in a different way,” said Restrepo. “We are convinced that the kids who have already completed part of the music classes and have artistic training, continue to do so, and that keeps them out of the conflict.”
Three years ago, the Mayor´s Office found that between 1997 and 2007, or since the program began, the number of children and youths who entered armed groups or gangs dropped by 30 percent, Restrepo said.
“Perhaps 30 percent is not that much in numbers, but in areas and situations that are this difficult, it is a great advance,” he said.
“For many of them, these programs help them start a new life. For many of them it will be something greater that helped them to develop great skills, tolerance, responsibility, commitment, so they could be better people,” said Restrepo.