It was not known what to call it. There was no acronym, no logo. Governor Ricardo Coutinho had a vision of installing in Paraiba a program modeled after Bahia's NEOJIBA, which is itself a project inspired by Venezuela's superb FESNOJIV, commonly known as "El Sistema" of youth orchestras. There were differences. Paraiba's program was to be based on state public schools rather than in a theater or conservatory. Coutinho called Alex Klein to launch the Program and be its General/Artistic Director. As part of the launching, Coutinho committed the state to pay for an instrumental lot fit for 10 orchestras. When added to music stands, strings, reeds, metronomes, tuners and other accessories this amounted to nearly 7000 items.
Paraiba is located on the northeastern coast of Brazil, boasts beautiful beaches and historic buildings, has wealth but it is poorly distributed. The state's per capita GDP ranks 24th among Brazil's 27 states. When you consider that the mostly-forested Amazonian region has 7 states, and that a few of those have a higher GDP per capita than Paraiba you begin to understand what we were up against, how big the effort was to build the program, and how important it was to avert an eventual social collapse. Paraiba's economy comprises just 0.8% of Brazil's (2004, Wikipedia). Some of its cities and neighborhoods are listed among Brazil's most dangerous, crime infested and its residents increasingly more excluded from the benefits of a growing democracy.
The plan: create 10 music centers specifically located in the most at-risk, dangerous places. Form orchestras and musical groups. Give young people a choice for a better life. As demonstrated by Venezuela and Bahia, use orchestral music and experience to teach citizenship. An initial group of 40 young musicians/teachers was chosen to start the program, forming a chamber orchestra. However, a simple copy-paste from Venezuela would not suffice. Paraiba is culturally very strong. Its people are proud, weary of outsiders, and have developed their own traditions over the last 500 years since European occupation began, and beyond. Culturally speaking, each city served by PRIMA was a "city-state", that is, possessing its own musical and educational traditions sometimes opposite or even antagonistic to another. The imposition of a foreign curriculum led by an outsider was the worst possible direction the Program should take. Instead, PRIMA allowed for a flexible approach, permitting each music center to develop individually, promote its hometown pride and follow its preferred educational paths, repertory, priorities and teachers. There was an unifying set of principles which tied them all together, no doubt.
PRIMA's main objectives are social inclusion, citizenship and empowerment. While books may be written about its educational strategies and outreach, the real heroes of PRIMA are the students, their awe of discovery, their dedication to a new art form, and formidable achievements. Their pictures speak volumes about the Program's aim and success.
Piano soloist Blair McMillen came from New York to play a Chopin solo, a Saint-Saens Sonata with Alex Klein, and the Beethoven Choral Fantasy to a capacity crowd in the outback city of Patos. PRIMA's choir and soloist all sung in German.
McMillen also gave a master class to PRIMA's pianists.
MOSAIC 2: Photos of the music center in Guarabira, in the interior of Paraiba state. Population: 58,000. The direct work being done with the students is not the only objective of PRIMA. On several photos it is possible to see family members, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends and other colleagues in the project observing rehearsals, practicing and interactions within PRIMA's music centers. These observes constitute a significant part of PRIMA's success, multiplying the impact of the program and distributing widely into the community its teachings about citizenship, dedication to a cause, teamwork, mutual respect, personal and mutual achievements, and foremost a knowledge - not just belief - that the future can be a better place starting right now. Approximately 4000 kids were directly affected by PRIMA's teachings during the 4,5 years Alex Klein directed the project. However, another 100,000 people were in directly and positively affected through family and school interactions. Furthermore, the intense and regular media praise through newspapers and television coverage likely spread the positive impact of the program to an even larger number.
MOSAIC 4: An evening at the Cabedelo music center, PRIMA's first. Like other port cities in the world, so does Cabedelo suffers the consequences of inequality, crime and poverty. Orchestra rehearsals were held at the Anibal Moura State School in an open space between classrooms, by the water fountains, announcements and bathrooms. The inspiring happy faces seem to hide a sad human reality. All of these young people have seen murders, had family or friends being victims of crime, yet, somehow, overcame the emotional confinement of those images and set out to make music, learn, work hard and look towards the future. One of the teachers shown in these pictures was dismissed for inappropriate behavior. The piece being rehearsed was "The Great Gate of Kiev" from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition". In some pictures it appears that students are practicing with open doors. Actually, those classrooms had no doors. Students would also graduate without having teachers available for all subjects either. On one High School student's account, they went an entire year without a Physical Education, English and Mathematics teacher, and had to share the same Portuguese teacher with the class next door. When it rained it was necessary to use an umbrella inside classrooms. Each student here has a story of resilience worth telling, but perhaps one of the the most touching ones is that of our dear Toni, the horn player on the right (on the picture with two horn players). When PRIMA won a National Award for "Education Map" we chose Toni to represent all students at the ceremony in Brasilia. "There was no hope, nor much to do", he said, until he met PRIMA. He loved the horn and became an excellent player. One night following a concert the Cabedelo students were walking back to the Anibal Moura school carrying instruments and music stands, when Toni's former street friends saw him and called him to join them at some affair. Toni looked at his PRIMA colleagues and had to make a choice right there. He apologized to his old friends, saying that he needed to stay with his music colleagues at that moment to put instruments and stands away and finish the evening on the proper note, and so they parted ways. That choice was a key example of the importance of PRIMA for Paraiba's at-risk communities. Months later, in Brasilia, as PRIMA accepted the award, Toni played beautifully and then said, to everyone's shock, that at that very moment his old friends were in police custody for robbery and attempted murder. This story, multiplied by the thousands of kids served by PRIMA, exemplifies the importance and power of a socio-orchestral program like PRIMA in giving young people from these communities a choice in life.
The "Alto do Mateus" neighborhood in Paraiba's capital João Pessoa is one of the most affected at-risk communities specifically selected by Governor Ricardo Coutinho for development through PRIMA and other interventions. Klein recalls the army going into the neighborhood after classes finished in the late afternoon, and of students mentioning shootings at night, and of feeling hungry. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Alto do Mateus Orchestra thrived, its students were fervently dedicated, string quartets were formed, and choirs, and a children's symphony, and a symphonic band. Cellist Wagner Felix (photo) developed fast with the cello, and by his mid-teens was playing Saint-Saens Cello Concerto with virtuosity, yet declined an offer to further his musical studies, instead opting to study Medicine, one of the most sought-after university majors in Brazil and nearly impossible to gain admission coming from public schools. Notwithstanding the odds, Wagner was accepted into Medicine at the Federal University, with all his tuition paid for. PRIMA's role in Wagner's life and that of other students did not prepare him for such academic success, but gave him the tools and strength of character to overcome obstacles, with the certainty that his hard work would pay off in the next concert, so that eventually he could transfer that inner fire from music to his academic prowess.
Paraiba State Governor Ricardo Coutinho, who idealized PRIMA and set it in motion by bringing Alex Klein to Paraiba, is seen embraced by students from the music center in Itaporanga, an outback city of 25,000 at the center of Paraiba's drought country.