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José Abreu, creator of Venezuelan El Sistema youth orchestras, dies

Venezuela mourned the death of José Abreu, the creator of El Sistema, a music program that combated childhood poverty though music education.
Image: Jose Abreu
Founder of the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela Jose Antonio Abreu carries a child as he arrives at a free concert at the low-income neighborhood of La Vega in Caracas on August 2, 2009.Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

CARACAS - José Abreu, the award-winning founder of a program that pulled thousands of Venezuelan children from crime and poverty through music, died on Saturday, aged 78.

Abreu founded the globally acclaimed El Sistema, or The System, in 1975 in a garage with just nine musicians. From that, the network expanded to 300 choirs and orchestras that received awards from the Royal Swedish Academy and UNESCO.

“With devoted love and eternal gratitude to my mentor and father of El Sistema,” wrote Gustavo Dudamel, a famed Venezuelan conductor now the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on Twitter alongside a photo of himself with Abreu.

Abreu was born on May 7, 1939, in the small Andean city of Valera. He began his musical studies at nine and moved to Caracas to study composition.

“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,” said Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic, according to the El Sistema website.

Abreu’s model has been followed by other Latin American countries as well as some in Europe.

Dudamel has become the public face of El Sistema in recent years, often conducting free concerts in Caracas’ grimy downtown area.

He has spoken out strongly in support of anti-government protests that last year rocked Venezuela for four months, leaving more than 120 people dead, including an 18-year-old musician from the Venezuela National Youth Orchestra.

“We are deeply moved by the physical departure … of Maestro Abreu,” said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on state television.