The Mexican street orchestra trading violence for violins

The Daily Telegraph - 15 September 2023

Since 2011, Santa Cecilia Music School has brought music education to a tough Mexican town. So can it repair the damage?

Armando* used to kick plastic bottles around the mountain of rubbish in the town of Vicente Guerrero in Oaxaca. He left school aged 11, fell in with a bad crowd, and soon he’d watch his friends cut the same bottles in half and fill them with solvents before mixing them with guava juice and inhaling the mixture deeply. They would pass into a dreamy, semi-conscious state for several minutes, refilling the bottles throughout the day.

“I saw how my friends got hooked on drugs and how quickly fights broke out. Kidnappings and burglary were common too. I didn’t think much about it because it was so normal here.”

He continues: “One day, my mum dragged me away and brought me to the door of the new music school in the centre of town, where I had my first tuba lesson. Playing the tuba relieved a lot of stress inside me.”

In 2014, Armando enrolled at the Santa Cecilia Music School, which was founded from rubble in 2011 to combat gang violence, crime, and children’s drug abuse in one of the poorest and most violent areas of southern Mexico. 

The classical music school in the heart of Vincente Guerrero this month established a charitable partnership with the Royal Academy of Music in London, which will see strings and supplies from the UK institution’s student body collected and donated directly. 

Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, Jonathan Freeman-Attwood tells me he “greatly admires” the opportunities the school is creating and is “very excited to see how this partnership progresses.” And he’s not alone. The school’s symphony orchestra will perform 40 concerts to large crowds in France this month and plans for UK concerts are being discussed.

Armando (now 20) is one of 50 players who will travel. He’s confident, boyish, and tells me: “I’m really excited to see France, but nervous about their food.” 

Classical music has been a successful tool in bringing change to disadvantaged communities across the world. In Colombia, Fundacion Nacional Batuta was founded in 1991 on the principle that “musical training is a right for all.” Children who enrolled were often victims of the Colombian armed conflict, including thousands displaced by violence. Today, an estimated 350,000 children have been trained by Batuta, and approximately 10 per cent are now working in music professionally.

Santa Marcelina Cultura in Sao Paolo, Brazil, similarly delivers classical music education programmes in local favelas while the renowned West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was founded to promote peace between Israel and Palestine. 

These organisations are rooted in creating opportunities within disadvantaged and often violent surroundings. They’ve also proven they can become a symbol of pride for the neglected. 

Life before classical music for the 14,000 people in Vicente Guerrero was certainly violent and unpredictable. 

The town lies 12 km south of the tourist destination of Oaxaca city and was known for being the city’s municipal landfill site since the 1980s. One resident says that in Vicente Guerrero, “they used to kill for free”.

Fortune struck in the summer of 2011, when Air France pilot, Isabelle de Boves, visited her elderly aunt who lived in Vincente Guerrero. 

“I remember hearing major scales being sung in perfect harmony and a metronome-like rhythm. We turned a corner and saw a group of 21 singing children using broken chairs and wooden sticks from the rubbish to keep the tempo.”

Deeply moved by the landfill ensemble, Isabelle, on her return to Paris, trawled through her phonebook and relentlessly chased contacts for musical instruments to help build the infrastructure for a small orchestra. 

Her next flight to Mexico City was set for early 2012. By packing her maximum baggage allowance with brass instruments and her flight crew doing the same, 21 donated instruments were loaded into an Air France Boeing-737 and handed over in the arrivals lounge at Mexico City Airport.

Isabelle de Boves would visit countless more times in the coming years, bringing more instruments and supplies, expanding the capabilities of the orchestra and band with violins, cellos and oboes. She created a charity, La Banda de Musica, to raise money and organised fundraisers to pay for the construction of new school buildings, including a luthier workshop. The town’s close-knit community, which is Zapotec – the largest indigenous community in southern Mexico – produced a uniquely communal effort to continue teaching while building progressed. No government funding was received until 2022 despite several requests made by the school. 

The Santa Cecilia Music School’s infancy means it’s too early to tell if the school will create a global star. A legacy of producing the highest level of musicians hangs in the balance, but promising signs are emerging. Seven recent graduates are now studying music at the University of Mexico and two recently began courses at the Conservatory of Fine Arts. 

British cellist, Lucy French who graduated from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, has been volunteering as a teacher at the school since 2018. She tells me professors at the University of Mexico recounted their “surprise at the high skill level and impressive attitudes of the Santa Cecilia Music School students” during a recent end of year recital exam. 

For other students like Jonathan* (19) and Edgar* (22), music has played a healing role.

To help fund his mother’s breast cancer treatment, Jonathan moved in with his aunt in Vicente Guerrero in 2021, which allows him to work in the carpark at Oaxaca’s largest market from 6am-2pm every day. 

“The school gave me a scholarship to study and organised a concert to raise money for my mother’s operation and chemotherapy. 

“In a few years, I would like to return to my hometown in the Sierra Juarez mountains to teach music theory there. The music tradition is dying because our teachers have left for bigger cities.”

Edgar (22) is more reserved. With his arms carefully folded, he describes his dream of playing the saxophone professionally in one of Oaxaca’s traditional bands. However, a few years ago, he suffered a bad break in his arm playing in a football match. His arm never healed, and for years, he couldn’t extend the fingers on his hand.

“Being taught the guitar at the school helped me get nearly all the movement back in my hand, and now I can start saxophone lessons and hopefully play in a band in Oaxaca soon.”

Walking down the same dirt road to the school which Isabelle de Boves did 12 years ago, it’s difficult to imagine the dangerous threat many of the community resided under, but glances down empty streets reveal makeshift barricades made from concrete and rusted chains. Locals say these barricades “still provide security” against attacks and the destruction of property.

A search of recent local newspaper reports still describes a culture of fear in people, who choose not to contact authorities in fear of retribution of reporting on cases of rape, death by stoning, beatings, and armed burglary. Unsolved murder cases and unidentified corpses found on roadsides haunt the headlines about Vicente Guerrero.

Time will tell if music can repair the damned reputation of the forgotten town. The onus will be on the new generation, united by the Santa Cecilia Music School, to rewrite the score. 

By Gordon Cole-Schmidt

2023 published articles

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