José Antonio Abreu

(2001, Venezuela)

...for achieving a unique cultural renaissance, bringing the joys of music to countless disadvantaged children and communities.


José Antonio Abreu was born in Venezuela in 1939. His education pursued two tracks: he obtained a Ph.D. in petroleum economics in 1961, and in 1964 graduated as a composer and organist from Venezuela's national conservatory of music. By 1969 he was a Professor of Economics and Professor of Planning at different universities, and was also a Deputy in the Venezuelan Congress. In 1975 he began the work for which he has been awarded, founding the Symphony Orchestra Simon Bolivar and the National Symphony Youth Orchestra (NSYO).

Contact Details

Sistema Nacional de Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (FESNOJIV) Torre Oeste, piso 18, Parque Central Caracas 1010 VENEZUELA


The success of the NSYO under Abreu's direction led to the establishment of youth orchestras in other Venezuelan States, which has grown into the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras of Venezuela, under the auspices of a State Foundation, FESNOJIV. This now involves 110,000 Venezuelans, grouped in 120 youth orchestras, 60 children's orchestras and a network of choirs, with musical training starting from the age of two. The orchestras are based on 75 'orchestral cells' around the country, each with at least one orchestra, and the System also includes workshops in which children learn to build and repair instruments, special programmes for children with disabilities or learning difficulties, and specialist centres or institutes for phonology, audiovisuals and higher musical education.

Perhaps the most remarkable element about this orchestral System is that it is explicitly oriented towards lower-income social strata. It has been described as "a social movement of massive dimensions, that works using music as the instrument that makes the social integration of different Venezuelan population groups possible and supports the strata with low income." The orchestras have had a substantial social impact in the communities in which they are active, legitimising and promoting music throughout the community and leading to something of a musical and cultural renaissance. Studies have also shown that the young people involved in the orchestras also perform better in other areas of academic and social life.

This unique programme of musical education and awakening has attracted much international notice and acclaim. UNESCO awarded FESNOJIV its 

International Music Award in 1993-94 and in 1998 UNDP commended it as an outstanding example of poverty reduction. Inspired by the many tours of El Sistema's orchestras over the world, similar initiatives have been started in many countries, for example several Latin American countries, all over the USA, in Germany and in Sweden. It is probably the first worldwide movement for social change through art.

FESNOJIV is a substantial organisation with nearly 1,000 staff spread through the 75 'orchestral cells'. Abreu has been the Director of the Foundation since its establishment in 1994, before which he was for five years Venezuela's Minister for Culture and President of its National Council for Culture. In 1998 he received UNESCO's title 'Ambassador for Peace'. He his also a recipient of several awards, among them more recently the 2008 Prince of Asturias Arts Award, the 2009 Polar Music Prize, the Légion d'honneur of France and the Peace Prize of Seoul, Korea, in 2010. He received honorary degrees of the Metropolitana University, Caracas, in 2010, and from Carleton University, Canada, in 2012.


Acceptance Speech by José Antonio Abreu

December 7th, 2001

My heart is filled with joy today as I receive the Right Livelihood Award without any merit of my own that would have made me worthy of this renowned honour. I accept it in the name of those distinguished artists and teachers, who have accompanied me over 27 years with admirable unselfishness and solidarity while being inspired by the noble ideas of the children and the young people of Latin America. The new musical generation of Latin America is evidence of a continent that has found a splendid model in its young people's orchestras and choirs.

Gabriel García Márquez, prominent writer of the continent, as he received the Nobel prize for Literature insisted that his work should be considered as inseparable from the "tempestuous reality" of Latin America. Beyond their legends, the people of Latin America have been able to consolidate a distinctive culture, which is not just formed by an isolated avant-garde.

The powerful reality that now emerges is leading the way to a new Latin-American century where the arts are transformed in a irreversible way into a social right of all our people and where the artistic development of the young becomes a social revolution.

The National system of children and youth orchestras of Venezuela forms a network of 120 youth orchestras and 60 children's orchestras, established in all our provinces. The essential objective of this system, embracing 110.000 young people, is not just aiming at artistic expression, but is placing itself in the global context of the politics of Participation, Integration, Prevention, Education and Saving the young.

An orchestra is much more than a mere artistic structure. For the young playing music together is a way of deeply interacting with one other, evoking a devotion to excellence, the discipline of working together and the interdependence between sections, voices and instruments. This is the way the orchestral community, through its musical message, approaches that complex equilibrium of multiple, dynamic and subtle values.

This is why the youth and child orchestras and choirs are so valuable as a means of integrating young people in a social life based upon solidarity, as well as being an instrument promoting personal fulfilment.

This shows how useful and important the work of the orchestras is in the formation of the character; it stimulates the mind and senses, helping the participant develop his or her intellectual capabilities and powers of expression.

The System puts forward a special programme, with a national scope, designed for the many of physically and mentally challenged juveniles and children, aiming at treatment and rehabilitation through the use of methods and techniques of modern musical therapy.

The System is taking on a great number of abandoned children, which involves concern with their education, rehabilitation and return to their families.

It also provides further education for the young in a special field, namely the manufacturing and repair of musical instruments, aiming at the development of a national network of small businesses manufacturing instruments for the national and regional markets.

Through its newly formed programme, named "Música y País" (Music and Country), the System is making a great effort to ensure that the researching, conservation and practice of Venezuelan music reaches young people and communities. The aim is to strengthen the consciousness of our national, social and historical identity among the new generations. It is the programme "Música y País" that organises seminars, concerts and recitals, directed towards the poor under the slogan "For music - against drugs, violence and crime".

The structure and methodology of the system is based upon a style of leadership that is flexible, open and democratic and this favours the integration of as many children and juveniles as possible.

The project's importance to society is visible mainly in three spheres: the personal-social sphere, the family sphere and the community sphere.

In the personal-social sphere the children and juveniles brought together through music are characterised by their spiritual, moral, intellectual and emotional development. Being in an orchestra from their early years helps the individual to grow within a healthy group, gaining invaluable intellectual, social and emotional experiences and learning the values of patience, discipline, endurance, the ability to compromise and the value of one's personal contribution in order to fulfil a collective end.

All of this is helps to create a positive self-image, a strong self-esteem and a sense of confidence. 

There has proven to be a strong, positive relationship between doing well in the regular school and the study of music. In order to get admitted to the musical studies the children and the juveniles have to do well in regular school and this demands that they make good use of their time, capabilities and skills. The children and juveniles participating in the programme demonstrate improved attentional and communicational capabilities, as well as improved understanding of mathematics. This shows how the programme creates a sense of belonging and social solidarity. 

The family sphere is characterised by the unconditional help that the children and young people playing in the orchestras receive from their parents and relatives in order to help them stay in the orchestras fulfilling the goals that each one have formed according to their own talent and interest.

The way that the majority of the family members are supporting the children either economically or with emotional encouragement is really impressive. The child, when discovering the joys of practising a musical instrument and getting an inkling of the possibilities that the orchestra can offer him or her, begins to aspire towards a better economical and social situation for his or her family and relatives.

This represents the will to improve the conditions for all as well as to improve the condition of oneself.

The majority of the children and juveniles belong to the groups that are the most vulnerable and excluded in all of the Venezuelan society. Participating in the orchestral movement has made it possible for them to set up new goals, plans, projects and dreams and at the same time it is a way of creating meaning and helping them in their day-to-day struggle for better life-conditions through the variety of opportunities that the orchestral movement is offering them.  

In the community sphere the orchestras reveal themselves as a new kind of cultural area where the interchange of new ideas and perceptions take place. In this way, town squares, theatres, schools, churches and parks are literally being filled with the rapidly increasing numbers of youth and child orchestras of Venezuela, showing us a new way of social interaction, enlarging the culture of our country.

When living with music becomes natural, music ceases to be considered a luxury. If it forms a part in ordinary life, a child can play the violin in his or her humble home, another in the father's garage, and many other can participate in recitals and concerts no matter where they live, in a coastal village as well as a community up on the hills. Material poverty is being defeated by the spiritual affluence. There is more to it - the latter can provide the physical condition, the ethical principles and the emotional and intellectual tools necessary when overcoming the former.

The System is directed by a set of ethical principles, a process in which the student is actively participating; creating, playing, listening, co-operating. As a consequence the music, and all that it brings with it in relation to personal development, the interaction within the family and the community spirit, is spontaneous and forms a natural part of life.

Music is no longer separated from daily life, it is in fact nourished by and nourishing daily life. Nourished by music, everyday life is transformed into a aesthetic experience, where harmony and beauty is cultivated in different areas such as nature, the school, the city, even in oneself. One learns to see art not just as something that belongs in a museum or in a concert-hall but as something ever present in our surroundings, in the people we meet, and the things we see each day, all this in contrast to and against the violence that is often a dominant part of social, everyday life. 

The System performs a preventive function in that it helps young people to stay away from drug abuse, prostitution, alcoholism, indifference, crime, bad company and corruption. The reason is that participating in the orchestral movement is a inexhaustible source of personal development directed towards the fulfilment of both personal and collective goals.

The Venezuelan orchestral phenomenon exposes the false dichotomy between popular and academic music, as it incorporates both in its repertoire when performing the weekly concerts in different villages and cities all over the country. The so-called classical music is now a natural and integrated part of the cultural repertoire of our people, a fact that only confirms its universal qualities as a language. In the same way, our popular music is being enriched by the possibility of symphonic expression, permitting its rhythm and tones to transform into multicoloured sounds, through the rich set of instruments of an orchestra.

The national System of pre-school, child and youth orchestras is contributing in creating an image of Venezuelan music as a way leading to success, as a professional career with status and social recognition; a model and an opportunity for the young people of Venezuela. They are creating within themselves a new kind of relationship with the values of merit, effort, endurance and discipline, creating a path leading towards a better Venezuela.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Spreading youth orchestras is no different from sowing the seeds of nations and peoples, as in Argentina and Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela or in Trinidad-Tobago, Jamaica, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Cuba, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, where the development of youth orchestras is seen as a symbol of national integration. 

Ladies and Gentlemen: I here by solemnly declare the intention, within the next few months, to complete the organisation and establishment of the Youth and Child Orchestra of the American continent.

The basic structure will be the creation and the inauguration in August 2002 of the Symphonic Youth Orchestra of America consisting of a selection of all different national orchestral systems of all the member states in the organisation. This is a commitment essentially based upon a conception that doesn't dichotomise education and culture, but unifies them in one indissoluble spiritual dimension. 

Culture conceals the essentials of the human soul, our profound identity. The very high principles that inspired Jakob von Uexkull to create the Right Livelihood Award, is showing us the possibility of honouring history by accepting the challenge of creating a world where we all can live in dignity and liberty. I pray that God will help us in our lives and our works so that we don't fail this noble ideal.


TED talk

El Sistema - Film trailer

Mata Tigre - Change through Music in Venezuela: El Sistema

Mata Tigre illustrates how music transforms the lives of youths in Venezuela. The film tells five stories that take place in five different locations, yet have one thing in common: the expectation that music can change life for the better. To kill the tiger (“Mata Tigre”) means that nothing can get you down. To learn a musical instrument under difficult conditions is a similar challenge. 


Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
Maison de la Paix
Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55