Sunday, June 22, 2008

Prison orchestras offer hope in Venezuela

By Simon Romero Sunday, June 22, 2008 LOS TEQUES, Venezuela: When Nurul Asyiqin Ahmad was delivered seven months ago to her cell at the National Institute for Feminine Orientation, a prison perched on a hill in this city of slums on the outskirts of Caracas, learning how to play Beethoven was one of the last things on her mind. "The despair gripped me, like a nightmare had become my life," said Ahmad, 26, a shy law student from Malaysia who claims she is innocent of charges of trying to smuggle cocaine on a flight from Caracas to Paris. "But when the music begins, I am lifted away from this place." Ahmad plays violin and sings in the prison's orchestra. In a project extending Venezuela's renowned system of youth orchestras to some of the most hardened prisons in the country, Ahmad and hundreds of other prisoners are learning a repertoire that includes Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, folk songs from the Venezuelan plains and Mercedes Sosa's classic lullaby "Duerme Negrito." The budding musicians include murderers, kidnappers, thieves and, here at the women's prison, dozens of "narcomulas," or drug mules, as small-scale drug smugglers are called. The project, which began a year ago, is expanding this year to five prisons in Venezuela from three. "This is our attempt to achieve the humanization of prison life," said Kleiberth Lenin Mora, 32, a lawyer who helped create the prison orchestras, modeling them on the system that teaches tens of thousands of poor children in Venezuela classical music. "We start with the simple idea that performing music lifts the human being to another level." Few nations have prison systems as much in need of humanizing as Venezuela, where 498 inmates out of a total population of 21,201 were murdered in 2007, according to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, a group that monitors prison violence. The women's prison, the scene of gang fights and hunger strikes by inmates in recent months, is not immune to this violence. But it is not all bleak. Inmates have free access to the Internet. They can pay to use cellphones. A dispensary sells soft drinks and snack food. And now the prison, known as INOF, for its Spanish acronym, has its orchestra, which most of the more than 300 women incarcerated here opt to avoid. But the 40 or so who have joined find themselves enmeshed in an experience unexpected in their lives in or out of prison. "Before this my music was reggaetón," said Irma González, 29, a street vendor serving a six-year sentence for robbery, referring to the fusion of reggae, hip hop and Latin pop that emanates from Venezuelan slums. Now she plays the double bass. Her proudest moment, she said, was when her four children, ages 14, 13, 10 and 9, recently came here to watch her play. "When they applauded me, I finally felt useful in this life," González said, flashing an infectious smile that included a tongue-piercing offering a hint of past mischief. Like other participants, she hopes to reduce her term by playing in the orchestra, which judges may consider the equivalent of hours of study. Officials say it is too early to tell whether the project will improve overall conditions here and at the two male prisons where it started, in the Andean states of Mérida and Táchira. No stars have emerged like Gustavo Dudamel, the 27-year-old phenom from the youth orchestra system named as the next music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. For now, the project, which receives $3 million from President Hugo Chávez's government and the Inter-American Development Bank, takes baby steps. It staged its first public performance last month in Teresa Carreño Theater in Caracas. And it focuses on requiring its participants to hew to a few specific rules. For instance, no one can threaten the professors, many of whom are drawn from the youth orchestra system. Everyone must speak clearly during discussions in the daily practice sessions. Everyone must stand up straight and take care of their instruments. Smoking and chewing tobacco are not allowed. The orchestra at INOF (or "enough") is one of the most cosmopolitan in Venezuela. Foreigners arrested on drug smuggling charges comprise much of prison population. Women from Colombia, Spain, Malaysia and the Netherlands play instruments or sing in the chorus alongside Venezuelans. "I drain away by bad thoughts in the orchestra," said Joanny Aldana, 29, a viola player serving a nine-year sentence for kidnapping and auto theft. Like some of the other inmates, she is imprisoned here with her child, a 2-year-old daughter. Still, she despairs sometimes. "There's the pain of my children, of having destroyed my life, my youth," she said. Perhaps no amount of music can make up for such loss. Perhaps that explains the fervor with which some of the women play their instruments or sing. It is not uncommon to see one of them shedding a tear when a certain note is struck. For Yusveisy Torrealba, 18, that moment comes when the orchestra's chorus sings a few words from "Caramba," the folk song by the Venezuelan composer Otilio Galíndez performed with the cuatro, a four-string guitar. Torrealba, caught in April taking cocaine on a flight to Orlando, looks no older than 16. In her soft voice, she sang this refrain for a visitor one recent afternoon: "Caramba, my love, caramba / The things we have lost / The gossip I could hear / Between the rocks of the river." "Caramba," she repeated quietly, as if contemplating how much time remained in an eight-year sentence that began last month. "The only thing keeping me together is this music." Sandra La Fuente contributed reporting.

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