The ONJI youth orchestra in Guatemala aims to develop the talents of top music pupils while also helping to promote understanding among the country's divergent ethnic and social groups - with success thus far.
In Guatemala, the government is investing in education and health, but especially in the security measures that citizens have been demanding in light of the country's high rate of criminality. When it comes to the government's list of priorities, art and culture don't tend to top the list.
However, one decree in support of the arts was issued seven years ago, providing for the establishment of a National Intercultural Youth Orchestra (ONIJ). The aim of the project is to bring together the most talented music pupils from various social classes and ethnic backgrounds.
"An orchestra usually has time to master its repertoire and then perform it together. In our case, we also want to bring together young people from divergent cultures and regions of our country," said Martin Corleto, head of the ONIJ. The Guatemalan musician has already worked often with young people from various nations.
"The most important thing in this project is the intercultural approach. Someone from a rural region who has studied music for years has the same opportunity as everyone else here. For us, what matters is getting him to the same level as one of the city-dwellers," said Diana Herrera of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German political foundation that is providing significant support to the orchestra.
Intercultural understanding is seen here not just as a question of varying nationalities. It's also considered in reference to the educational disparities between cities and remote areas in Guatemala as well as the differences among ethnic groups.
The orchestra, with its many members from outside of urban centers, aims for inclusion. Talent scouts for the ONIJ sought out rural schools and artistically ambitious community centers that had been pursuing their activities on their own in the past. Of course, places like Guatemala City have also contributed young performers as well.
In love with the violin
18-year-old Eladio Roquel is from the village San Juan Comalapa in the department of Chimaltenango. He has been playing violin since age 7, saying he fell in love with the sound of the instrument when someone played it at his school. In fact, the pupil was so moved that he did all he could to learn violin himself.
When he's asked why he likes to play classical music, his answer is clear: "I like academic music because you have to concentrate very much when you play. With this music, you can really express your feelings and that helps develop your craftsmanship."
Roquel is happy to have found a place in the ONIJ and says the creditgoes to maestro Corleto. The conductor happened upon the devoted young musician while searching for talent in Roquel's village.
Arnold Kuestermann is tall and Nordic, and his strong German accent makes it unlikely for people to assume he's Guatemalan. But he is, both as a matter of birth and of conviction. Although his four siblings live in Germany, he prefers Guatemala, where he is heavily engaged with social and political causes.
"I was born in Guatemala. My parents are Germans, and I also went to school in Germany. But since 1951, I've been living in Guatemala again, and I view myself as part of the culture and society here," the ONIJ supporter stresses.
He has taken on the task of promoting the youth orchestra project as a means of strengthening the development of democracy in his country. To do so, he draws upon his network both locally and back in Germany.
"We've drawn inspiration from Venezuela and other countries. There, people support young people in creative endeavors, which helps reduce criminal activity," Kuestermann says. For years, the German-Guatemalan activist has lent support to scholarly investigations of Guatemala's social problems.
Support from many sides
The Guatemalan youth orchestra enjoys the support of a number of institutions, including the Education and Employment Ministry, the Ministry for Society, Culture and Sport, the German Embassy in Guatemala, Deutsche Welle, the Konrad-Adenaur-Stiftung and the Association for Research and Social Studies (ASIES).
"Orchestras like this help us build up the cultural scene in Guatemala that we would like to have: intercultural, unified and with shared goals," said ASIES director Raquel Zelaya. The German diplomat Matthias Sonn adds, "The energy of these young people gives us reason for hope. The group consists of very different people, but the dynamic is quite impressive."