Early in January of this year, I left my comfortable and familiar teaching routine in Montreal and flew south to Brazil for three months. Rest assured, I was not just lounging around on Copacabana beach while everyone back here was digging themselves out of a snowbank; I went to Rio de Janeiro with the very lofty musical goal of playing drums in the Samba parade for Carnaval.

 Vanessa with the Escola de Musica da Rocinha

Vanessa with the Escola de Musica da Rocinha jazz/bossa-nova band "Roçambossa"

The samba school I ended up drumming with is called Rocinha, which sits at the base of the shanty town, or favela, by the same name. Rocinha is the largest favela in all of South America, with an estimated 200 000 residents, and is quite a sight to behold, with thousands of little brick houses packed together up the face of a mountain. As I spent more time rehearsing at the samba school and getting to know the people of the community, I learned that there has been much NGO and volunteer activity focused on Rocinha for the last couple of decades, and now the government is finally starting to pay attention and provide them with some much-needed infrastructure.

There is a government high-rise beside the samba school that houses a medical clinic, a youth centre and several other important services. In this building there is also a music school called Escola de Musica da Rocinha (EMR), founded 17 years ago by a German musician and functioning completely on private donations and sponsors (save for the space provided by the government). I felt that I should do some volunteering during my stay in Rio, so I introduced myself to the directors of EMR and got to work helping conduct their jazz/bossa-nova band, writing arrangements and giving some piano lessons.

Currently, EMR has a very healthy inventory of donated instruments, enough to start a chamber orchestra, but sadly this year they are without a sponsor, so they were unable to retain many of their teachers. All of the remaining staff are working on a volunteer basis in order to keep the school going (as it is their policy not to charge students for lessons or ensembles). More teachers and an orchestral arranger/director are needed to be able to launch a youth orchestra program.

Some of you may have heard of El Sistema or Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. El Sistema is a youth orchestra program in Venezuela founded by musician and economist Jose Antonio Abreu in 1975 to help poor children learn to play an instrument and join an orchestra. The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is one of the ensembles from this program and has won worldwide acclaim. 95% of the students in these orchestras come from poor communities just like Rocinha.

In the words of Jose Antonio Abreu, “Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings”.  I would love to see something like El Sistema take hold in Rio, and EMR would be a great place to start.

Vanessa Rodrigues, Youth Music Director

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