Saturday, June 6, 2009

El Sistema - Caracas Venezueala

June 6, 2009
“Itchy itchy I-I, Venezuela!”

I have always loved that tune by Slowcoaster…”Itchy Itchy I-I, Venezuela! Cape Breton Island yeah!”. I asked Steve from the band what that song was all about…its’ reggae vibes had everything to do with the Sydney Tar Ponds and the shitty itchy itchy that resulted in Venezuelan oil deals. Seems like a common theme in Atlantic Canada, how can we forget the NB Power/Venezuelan ore emulsion debacle? Our socialist friends of the deep and dirty south play by their own rules that is for sure. Chevas is fighting to become the “president” for life, true sarcastic democracy! I must be clear however; this is not however a blog post about Venezuelan politics, oil or Slowcoaster…this is a blog post about CLASSICAL MUSIC!!!

Lets rewind 2 months…we filmed Matt Anderson and the New Brunswick Orchestra at the Moncton Wesleyan mega complex, wow…what a great concert! We are in post production currently for it and it is looking great! We are all very excited to release this on DVD. Like every other door I have opened in my life, the door of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra opened me to an incredibly bright and colorful hallway that had a million other doors off on each side. After we filmed the concert in Moncton, Ken MacLeod from NBYO invited me to come to Venezuela with him and a small mission to explore what they were doing as a government and a culture in the world of classical musicians. Who would have thought? Venezuela is producing more world class classical musicians than any other country in the world, it is truly outstanding.

Back in the early 1970’s an economist / musician named Jose Abreu invited a few kids from the slums to join him in a parking garage for their first music lesson. 30 years later, there are musical training facilities all over the country, and over the world, that have stemmed from Maestro Abreu’s initial parking garages session! Venezuela alone has over 300,000 kids learning how to become global leaders in music.

I could not resist. I gathered a crew together consisting of Lauchlan, my brother Mark, and myself to join Ken from NBYO, David from Colour Communications, and another fantastic David from the Saint John String Quartet. They all came down with their wives for a week in paradise. Well Venezuela isn’t actually a paradise, its closer to a hellish feeling in most public places to be truthful. Caracas is a mad city that has a thick thick thick spirit of fear laying over it. Kidnappings, murders, theft and violence are everywhere you look.

I found it very curious that gas was literally 40 cents American to fill a small car’s tank…I am not joking. Less than 5 Bolivars for a 50 liter tank. I figured they could wipe out crime completely if they had gas taxes similar to ours! Ah the ever confusing and repeatedly failed communist arrangements! Despite the “axis of evil” – style anti Americanism, there sure are a lot of MacDonalds and TGI Fridays!

The music system that Maestro Abreu created is called El Sistema, and it is creating MAJOR TRANSFORMATIONAL SOCIAL CHANGE. Kids who live in the ghettos (bourios) with no money, no education, no support systems and no opportunities are being recruited into El Sistema and are coming out on the other end has radical musician citizens This system is amazing, I saw it with my own eyes…thousands and thousands of kids passionately learning classical music. It was the most amazing social organization I have ever witnessed. Ken and the NBYO share a vision to bring El Sistema music program to Canada via New Brunswick. New Brunswick has over 25,000 kids who live well below the poverty line. The similarities between Atlantic Canada and Venezuela are stronger than I ever thought, just on a smaller scale. Music has the power to change people’s spirit, heart, live and position. Music is one of God’s most exciting mediums to create major life changes in my opinion. The spirit vibrates with music; the music vibrates with the Spirit.

Here is the treatment for the documentary we started to shoot:

Il Sistema is a documentary that follows board members of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra as they learn from Venezuela as they have developed the world’s largest export of professional classical musicians. The government funded after school program, “Il Sistema” has put instruments into the hands of children who would never otherwise have a chance to be transformed by music. The youth orchestra, based out of Caracas is considered to be the best on the planet. There are more professional musicians working globally that came from this orchestra than from any other country in the world.

We will follow the director of the famed New Brunswick Youth Orchestra (Ken Macleod) from Canada on his odyssey to Venezuela to adopt the program and bring it North. Despite Canada’s recognition as a “developed” country, child poverty rates are extremely high.

Ken is passionate about seeing the same social change happen in Canada via music programs. The New Brunswick Youth Orchestra (NBYO) is award winning, and eager to become revolutionaries. Over the period of a year, Ken plans to bring the Venezuelan orchestra to Canada to tour with the NBYO, and in turn establish Canada’s first radical music program based on the model of Il Sistema.

Ken will meet the founders and directors of Il Sistema, explore the city of Caracas and surrounding areas to show the viewers where these revolutionary “Nuclei” of orchestras were born from. This documentary will not only educate, it will entertain as the brilliant classical soundtrack is complimented by stunning cinematography. The rags to musical riches story has never been told before as it will be in this epic journey…the journey of El Sistema.

El Sistema - Background

“There is nothing more important in the world of music than what is happening in Venezuela.”

-- “Land of Hope and Glory,” Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian, Nov.24, 2006

Throughout Venezuela, a quarter of a million kids annually are studying classical music; a radical social project where children, living in unthinkable circumstances and conditions, are succeeding with the help of skills learned through music.

El Sistema, born 30 years ago, as a brain chilled of award winning economist & philanthropist Jose Abreu. Il Sistema is funded by private sponsors and government and offers free music classes to any child regardless of their ability to pay for them. It also provides the instruments. Not only is it a flagship of national achievement, it is also creating transformative social change, artistic excellence, and producing and exporting musicians of extraordinary quality.

It is based on the premise that it is not just the lack of a roof, bread, or literacy skills that holds kids back; it’s also a spiritual lack – loneliness, a lack of recognition and of achievement. It is based on the belief that children are born into the world as assets – not liabilities and that poor people deserve to experience the riches that gifts like music can offer.

Il Sistema has demonstrated that children can acquire spiritual wealth through music. They have shown that art is not the property of the elite, but the heritage of the people – and is within the grasp of every citizen. They have shown that great art is for everyone and that it has the power to improve the lives of citizens as well as transform and enhance society.

Venezuela has verified the possibility of transformative social change through music.
For poor, the at-risk, disadvantaged children, music is the way to a dignified social destiny. Poverty means loneliness, sadness, anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork, and the aspiration to succeed.

It all starts with children, it is possible, it is deserved, it is incredibly fun – and it changes the future for all who are involved.

The El Sistema program

• Children are given an instrument as soon as they can hold it;
• Tuition, outings, and music are furnished free of charge in return for the child’s agreement to play in one of El Sistema’s ensembles;
• Orchestral playing is a part of the program from the beginning;
• Lessons are in groups;
• Children who have mastered a scale or two are delegated to teach younger children; peer support is fundamental;
• Practice is supervised;
• Six days a week, four hours a day, the children play music together.

The El Sistema spirit

• Music is taught as play rather than a chore;
• The objective is discipline, respect, and achievement through work;
• The goal is excellence: the point is not to be the best, but to be the best you can;
• Everything is communal, everything is about the team; the culture is one of mutual support.

Under these circumstances the rate of progress is astonishing. In an atmosphere of encouragement, affection, mutual support and sheer, unfettered joy in the music, the children reach impressive levels of performance by their early teens.

For the government, Il Sistema is essentially a social project, an engine for human development. Music becomes the path to a dignified social destiny. For the children of Il Sistema, an orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork and the aspiration to success.

Music changes the lives of the children, of their families, and of entire communities.

I am now at the airport about to leave Venezuela, it’s late and I am tired and can not wait to see my little girl again! Caracas was crazy, El Sistema was Inspiring. We need to take this project further, it is an amazing story, and if Ken and the NBYO crew are successful bringing the system to the far north then get ready! Canada is about to be transformed.

My good friend and Journalist Katie Wallace was originally going to come with us on this project, here is what she write for the original pitch, I thought it should be shared!

There is a story coming out of South America that sounds too good to be true: 30 years ago, Jose Abreu had a hunch that music could help break the vicious cycles of poverty in his native Venezuela. So he put orchestral instruments in the grubby hands of a cluster of poor children. Amazingly, his plan worked. Today his program, El Sistema, is a national phenomenon. Six days a week, for four hours a day, more than 300,000 Venezuelan kids gather to make music together.

Some of these prodigies will go on to join their young countrymen in becoming the best musicians in the world. Many will not. But what they will have gained, and what they will give back to their families and communities as a result of El Sistema cannot be measured in accolades or encores. These budding musicians are literally changing Venezuelan society from the inside-out, taking the skills they learned playing violin or trumpet or oboe and applying them to life.

More than music, El Sistema has given these kids hope.

I want to travel to Venezuela to see the El Sistema story with my own eyes, to hear it with my own ears.

I also want to understand how an after-school music system developed in sultry South America for some of Venezuela’s poorest kids could possibly translate to a small, quiet province in cold, comfortable Canada.

The New Brunswick Youth Orchestra wants to bring El Sistema to Canada. It will be the first organization in the country to do so. In June, a small contingent led by the orchestra’s energetic, indomitable director Ken MacLeod will travel to Venezuela to meet with Abreu and study the program firsthand.

What, you may ask, does a program designed to save children from the streets of some of Venezuela’s poorest, toughest barrios have to do with New Brunswick?

A lot, as it turns out.

Despite stark differences in language, weather, society and politics, there is one terrible shared characteristic between the countries: poverty.

Canada might rank a lot higher than Venezuela on most social and economic indicators, but its rates of child poverty are still abysmal and are especially shameful considering the country’s overall prosperity. Twenty years ago, the House of Commons voted unanimously to eliminate child poverty in Canada. Two decades have passed and not only has the problem not been solved, it has gotten worse.

Despite perennial hand-wringing the statistics in New Brunswick, my home province, just keep getting worse. In recent years, New Brunswick’s child poverty rate has risen so much that is now exceeds the national average. Nearly one in six children in this province lives in poverty. That’s more than 20,000 kids.

Nearly that many poor people live in my small city. All around me, in uptown Saint John, where one in four people lives below the poverty line, the effects of deeply systemic, intergenerational poverty are glaring. It is a strange, jarring duality to be an educated, privileged person with a good job and a nice house living in one of Atlantic Canada’s poorest neighborhoods.

That’s why I want to make this documentary. I want to show how the crushing dehumanization of poverty is universal. I would share this story through interviews I conduct in Venezuela and New Brunswick and by writings from a journal I would keep to chart the migration of an El Sistema-like project to New Brunswick, as well as to record my personal reaction to what I’m seeing and hearing. As a newspaper reporter with experience in writing for TV and radio, I have the technical skills to host the project and write scripts. As a journalist living and working in New Brunswick, I have the local contacts and physical proximity to follow the story back in Canada. I don’t pretend that this is my story. I see my role as that of a guide, a proxy for the audience.

If the effects of poverty are universal, so, too, is the power of music, a statement that would sound corny is not for El Sistema’s glaring success. It’s a success story I want to follow as it unfolds in my home province.

"Postcards from Greg Hemmings #15" - Gotta Have Kaiya Now

May 12, 2009 – “Gotta Have Kaiya Now”

I am a lover of adventure, life and experience. My work as a filmmaker has allowed me to travel the world and have some of the most amazing experiences of my life on the road. The craziest journey that I have ever experienced started last night around 7:30pm. Jessica and I packed the Subaru for what was to be the shortest, but most important road trip of our lives, driving two kilometers from North Street to University Avenue to the IWK Childrens’ Hospital in Halifax. I had the honor to experience my daughter’s first breath of life early this morning after an intense few hours of labor. A new and far more relevant chapter in our lives has begun. Baby “Kaiya” has just entered a world where there are limitless possibilities, adventures, and love.

"Postcards from Greg Hemmings #15" - How Karaoke Killed the Great Wall

“How Karaoke Destroyed the Great Wall”
Photo Credit: Paul Mantz

If you have ever been to the great city of Beijing China like I was, you most likely have visited the Forbidden City, climbed a part of the Great Wall, and sang some awful Karaoke. I was in China filming a documentary about New Brunswick entrepreneurs, politicians and educators as they travelled to the Far East to explore and encourage closer relationships with their Chinese counterparts. After filming many trade mission type events like ribbon cuttings, hand shakes, toasts and red carpet rollouts, I was very excited to finally get a chance to see a bit of the real China. The real China of course started with a very late night of Karaoke. Everyone from the trade mission who came out for the night of singing 1980’s pop classics, and one too many “I will survive’s” ended up going to bed hours later than they probably should have. The next morning we were too climb the Great Wall of China!

The next morning came far sooner than I was prepared for, and my friend Janet knocked on my hotel room door telling me that the bus was waiting for me…I had slept in. I slumped onto the bus and apologized to all for making them wait. We hit the narrow roads and made it to one of the most iconic structures of mankind’s history. I groggily whipped out my video camera to start shooting, but the batteries were dead. In my state of Karaoke bliss coming back to the room the night before, I completely forgot to charge my batteries. My climbing companion Paul was kind enough to take this picture of a defeated me. When I visited the Forbidden City later, still without a working camera, I submitted to my Eeyor-inspired self loathing and thought that no one probably would want to see my sad video anyway. To justify my embarrassing error, I decided that taking mental images of the structure would be far better in the end. Consider yourself warned, Karaoke nights in China can destroy any decent man’s ambition to film the wonders of the world! \

You can see Greg’s documentary “Chasing the Sun” at

"Postcards from Greg Hemmings #14" - South Bay Sterns

“South Bay Sterns”
Photo Credit: Gary Davis

As you drive towards Saint John on the old Westfield Road, there is a bend just before you hit the Gault Road that has a train bridge traversing a small body of water emptying into South Bay. If you park your car just before the train bridge there is a path that takes you to the top of a large meadow that overlooks South Bay. There are ruins of an old farm house on the hillside. The farm once belonged to Samuel Stern. Samuel was an immigrant Jewish Romanian farmer who moved north of the border from Staten Island, New York, where he and his family operated a farm.

In 1919, Samuel’s daughter Anna convinced the rest of her family to move north after she married a Saint John business man named Herman Wiezel (who co-owned the Wiezel shoe shop on Union Street, later on King Street). Samuel set up his farm in South Bay and raised a large family until the end of the 1920s at which point most of the family moved south to Vineland New Jersey. Anna and Herman had three children, one being Gladys who married an engineer who became one of Saint John’s most beloved mayors, Samuel Davis.

Sam’s son Gary Davis and I travelled to Vineland, New Jersey to film part of a family tree documentary about the Stern family. Not only did we get to give Samuel Stern’s only surviving son Alfred a piece of rock from the South Bay farm, we also had the chance to explore all the old remnant sites of the Stern family farm and business. Gary took this picture of me filming inside the remains of the Stern produce distribution center. There was nothing inside the building but a few beer bottles and some graffiti. The sign bearing the Stern family name still stands bold and strong, bold and strong like the family stories that make the heritage of Saint John so rich and so very interesting!

"Postcards from Greg Hemmings #13" - Kerouac for Rent

April 25 – Kerouac for rent!

Folk singer, and my hearse-driving television host Brent Mason and I were visiting Lowell Massachusetts shooting a documentary for CBC called Grave Concerns. Our first episode was about the life and death of iconic “Beat Generation” author Jack Kerouac. We were both stunned that Jack’s birthplace – 9 Lupine Road – was only identified by a small plaque stating that Kerouac was born here. The larger “For Rent” sign, however really drove the point home that legends actually do fade away into the dust of time, even legends like Jack Kerouac. Like thousands of others, Kerouac had inspired me as a young adventurer to hit the road in many ways in my life and breathe in every experience possible! The following quote sums up Jack’s impact on my life perfectly.

"They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn..."
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road

If I lived in Lowell, rest assured, I know the house I would be renting.

(NOTE: Readers can watch the “Grave Concerns” trailer that this article refers to at in the “Screening Room”)

"Gotta Have Kaiya Now! - MY NEW BABY!!!"

April 22, 2009
“The best day and gift of my life”

This blog post needs not to be long winded, I just need to make the point that when you see your partner in life give birth to your child, you think nothing else but “wow”. When I say wow, I mean the ultimate, Holy of Holy “wows”. This is life’s revolution; a new creation, a new shining – SHINING – and brighter than bright star has appeared in the sky above the dancing Northern Lights. She is the most beautiful little angel. I only now understand how amazing my parents are for giving birth and raising me…my mom went through what my wife Jessica just went through. I am speechless and amazed. Baby Kaiya has arrived and has flipped my life around. I love love love love love love her. That magic moment went she took her first breath was like a lightening bolt. We are now three.

Kaiya (Japanese) – Forgiveness
Kaia (Hawaiian) – Ocean
Kaya (African / Rastafarian) – Enlightenment!!!
“Gotta have Kaya now, for the rain is falling (Bob Marley) – A Prophet

Jessica and I both know that Kaiya is going to be a Holy light to the world, she has already made a pretty bright impact.

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter



    yasmin lawyers