For years, the neighborhoods that sprawl over the mountains in northern Medellin, known locally as “Las Comunas,” have been consumed by poverty, unemployment, and gang warfare. For young people, the lure of crime can be overwhelming. Pressure to join armed gangs for protection and to earn a livelihood is constant, and with a lack of other viable options, the young people from these communities are often drawn into the world of violence and crime.
However, amidst all of this chaos and violence comes a breath of fresh air, in the form of the rather eerie sound of beautiful classical music flowing through the air in the Barrio Popular #1 neighborhood. In the heart of “Las Comunas” grows a seed that was planted many years ago, with the intention of giving the young people of this area an alternative path in life. The Music School of Barrio Popular #1 has blossomed over the years, guiding the lives of many hundreds of young people from the neighborhood, by showing them that drugs and violence are not the way to go.
With over 150 students cramming into the small facility, clutching their instruments and pouring their energy into their music, the school has been working for the past six years to use music to channel local youths’ energy, motivating them and giving them the tools and platform to pursue a different way of life. “The music school really offers the kids a different path in life. Not necessarily via the music itself, but also through hard work. Both instill in young people lessons of how to dream and dedicate oneself,” Wilson Daza, director of the school, told Colombia Reports during a tour of the school. “We focus strongly on encouraging the students, utilizing positive reinforcement in an effort to show them the results and success that can be achieved through hard work.”
Music Schools extend all across Medellin
The Music School of Barrio Popular #1 is just one of the 26 Music Schools run by the Government of Medellin. Coordinated by Medellin’s Office of the Secretary for Civic Culture, in association with the University of Antioquia, the program has been running for ten years. “Compared to other similar music programs run throughout Colombia, the music program of Medellin is by far the largest and best funded,” Luis Miguel Usuga, Medellin’s Secretary of Civic Culture, explained to Colombia Reports. “There are over 4400 students across the 26 music schools, making it larger than both Bogota’s music program and the national government’s music program, Batuta.”
The Office of the Secretary of Civic Culture provides all of the funding for The Music School of Barrio Popular #1. Through this support, the local young people are able to attend the school free of charge.
The Reason for its Success
Usuga attributes the great success of the citywide music program, known locally as “Red de Escuelas de Musica de Medellin,” to the attitude of the local government. According to Usuga, a large amount of investment has been put into culture and the arts in an effort to bring stability and economic development to Medellin, which was once known as the most violent city in the world.
“Our [office] is powerful compared to those in other city governments. Here, we are not put at the end of the line behind other offices of the local government. Here, we understand how important culture is for the development of the city.”
The citywide music program sits alongside other programs run out of Usuga’s office, including ones focused on dance, visual arts, and literature, who operate in a similar manner to the music program. Together, they work to promote “peace and development in the city.” However, the music program is by far their largest, with a yearly operating budget of over $6 million, it is a model of success. In addition, over $10 million will be invested into infrastructural improvements for the program between 2008-2011.
Hardship for the School, as Violence Spirals out of Control
During the tour of the Music School of Barrio Popular #1, Director Wilson Daza explains that even though the program has been running better than anyone could have expected, there have been many hardships to overcome, especially with his school. Last year, as violence began to spiral out of control in “Las Communas,” things began to get complicated, Daza explains, “Students began having difficulties coming to school due to the cross-neighborhood gang warfare. Students from one neighborhood weren’t able to cross into other neighborhoods due to the violence.”
As a result, the number of students attending Daza’s school dropped from 185 to 104.
This, however, wasn’t enough to stop the school from running. As music student Alexander Mosguerra Correa tells Colombia Reports, “Things were very scary. We knew the risks involved with walking to school, but when one has music in his blood, you take the risk.”
Unfortunately for the school, as violence continued to worsen over the year, the Medellin Police gave the school notice that they needed to commandeer their building to use as a command center. As a result, Daza and the directors of the city’s music program were forced to reconsider their options and decide what to do with the school.
As Daza notes, “It was clear that it was time to move. It was a hard decision, because we knew that we would be losing some students, but we had to do it. We had no choice.” Having been given only short notice of the police’s decision to commandeer their building, Daza says that there was a great fear that the project would simply be shut down.
A Surprise to All
What came next, though, came as a surprise to everyone. According to Daza, they were notified that they would have to leave their building on January 18 of this year. On January 20, Daza was able to arrange for a meeting with a grade school located a few blocks further down in an area not plagued by gang warfare. By January 22, he explains, “We launched operations at the new location! The grade school had a large, independent building at the back of the property that was used as a teachers’ lounge. The teachers at the school were so moved by our program and our story, that they voluntarily donated to us their facility out of the kindness of their hearts.”
At the school’s new location, there are currently 150 students. Of these students, Daza explains, 102 of them are brand new, having started since the school opened in January of this year. The demand from the local community was impressive, after they had heard about the program’s success in other neighborhoods.
Daza, though, expresses sorrow at losing around 65 students who were unable to make the commute to the school’s new location, but says that he has retained 48 students from the old neighborhood, who all make the journey together from their homes further up the mountain. “It’s quite a beautiful thing, actually, you see, the older students wait for the younger kids, and then they all walk together to [the new] school. They accompany the kids in order to keep them safe through the neighborhoods, and then they also escort them home after class, all the way back up the hill!”
Confirming this sentiment, student Alexander Mosguerra Correa also reiterates the benefits of the communal education, stressing how it brings people together, and also keep kids on the right track in life, “Music is to share, it is communal and beautiful. Unfortunately, many other kids [who don’t attend the school] don’t really understand this. They are all caught up with drugs and street life. But here at the school, we are all a family. I’ve never had any problems with any other students at the school, they all stay away from the bad things of the streets, like drugs and violence, because here, these kids are all really saints, truly a bond between us all, a family.”
Correa, 23 years old, has been a student of Daza’s for several years now, ever since Daza started teaching at his school.
Music: A Means to a Better End
Daza, who started working with the music program of Medellin six years ago, originally honed his skills as a music teacher and program director in Guatape, a municipality three hours outside of Medellin. It was there that he became convinced of the positive nature music can play in young peoples’ lives. He recalls the story of a two-year-old, named Duban, who was brought to the music school in Guatape by his mother. The child, Daza remembers, “arrived everyday like a zombie, due to the medicine he was given for a hyperactive condition.” Daza held the belief that music, instead of medication, could be used to channel the child’s energy. He managed to convince the mother to give it a try, and after only a short period of time, they were able to see impressive results and improvement in Duban’s behavior.
Music, Daza argues, can be a means for young people to develop and better themselves in several different ways, and it is for that reason he remains so committed to sharing music and empowering young people.
For the Music School of Barrio Popular #1, its curriculum, as part of the larger network of 26 schools across Medellin, incorporates a carefully and meticulously designed program on behalf of the Mayor’s office. Its design involves a systematic channel for students to come into the school at a certain age, and develop their musical abilities; rising through the various ability levels, across a wide array of instruments. The program of 26 schools holds weekly concerts across Medellin’s various public parks, and a monthly concert, held on the first Monday of every month at 7 PM at the University of Medellin, for the city’s top students to showcase their talent to parents, family members, friends, and the general public, offering the audience a beautiful melody of symphonic tunes.
Upon attending the most recent concert, held on February 22 at the University of Medellin Theatre, Colombia Reports was able to witness the fruit of all of the hard work of the 4400 students across the city’s 26 schools. With an impressive array of various instruments and songs, the students demonstrated their love for music, pouring their energy into the two hour-long show, and giving the audience a truly moving and memorable experience.
Seeing the profound dedication and enjoyment that these children receive from music gives credibility to the notion that the entire program is predicated upon; through music, youth can avoid the temptations surrounding them, and focus their energies on their own education, and as a result, the positive and continued development of Medellin.