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Venezuela Mourns the Loss of José Abreu, Musician and Creator of Venezuelan Youth Orchestras

José Abreu, founder of El Sistema, a project which brings free music education to thousands of children in low-income neighborhoods across Venezuela, died at the age of 78 on Saturday.

Abreu founded El Sistema in 1975 with the goal of combating poverty through music education. El Sistema began in a garage with eleven  musicians and has since expanded to three hundred choirs and orchestras. The program provides children with free afternoon music lessons with an emphasis on orchestral practice.

Director Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic commented: “Abreu has given life to a musical system with which young people can be safe from the dangers of the street, of crime, of drugs.”

El Sistema has received multiple awards from UNESCO and the Royal Swedish Academy.

The program has been used as a model for other countries to create similar systems allowing individuals from low-income backgrounds to attend free educational workshops. Examples include OrchKids, Corona Youth Music Project and Harmony Project, LA.

José Abreu was born in Valera, Venezuela in 1939. From an early age, Abreu was surrounded by music as his mom played piano, and his father the guitar. Abreu studied Musical Composition and Economics, and was elected to be a substitute member of the Venezuelan parliament in the 1960s.

Gustavo Dudamel is the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and a product of El Sistema, having participated in the program as a kid. Dudamel honored Abreu by posting a photograph of himself with the founder via Twitter along with the caption that read: “With devoted love and eternal gratitude to my mentor and father of El Sistema.”

Many prominent figures have taken the occasion to thank Abreu for his life’s work. Minister Elias Jaua of Venezuela expressed his gratitude, stating “Thanks to Maestro José Antonio Abreu for his beautiful legacy for the boys, girls, and young people of Venezuela.”

The Foreign Ministry of Colombia also spoke fondly of Abreu, emphasizing that the musician “inspired and trained millions of children and young people in Venezuela, Latin America, and the world.”

President Nicolás Maduro shared a video on Twitter of him honoring Abreu’s coffin with the sword of Simón Bolivar. He accompanied this gesture with a heartfelt eulogy: “The master José Antonio Abreu was one of the greatest bolivarianos one could ever meet. From the heart we give him the sword of Bolívar, if there is someone who should always have it, it is him and the system of orchestras.”

The government of Venezuela has announced three days of mourning for  José Abreu.