By Valentini Anagnostopoulou
ATHENS, Aug. 3 (Xinhua) -- The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens' impressive ancient theatre under the Acropolis, came alive with the youthful voices and the passionate performance of Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra (SEYO) this week.
On Tuesday evening 421 students of 27 nationalities, aged from 10-20 years old, joined forces on stage to perform classical favorites and celebrate the ability of music to unite nations, religions and cultures.
The concert was the culmination of the Fourth SEYO 2017 summer camp between July 19 and Aug. 2, which was hosted in Athens and brought together young musicians from 12 European countries that have adopted Sistema and Sistema-inspired programs for "social action through music."
El Sistema is a non-profit organization, founded in Venezuela in 1975, which aims to promote social development for impoverished children and their families through free musical education.
So far, El Sistema has inspired similar programs in 65 countries and regions across the globe, and as its leaders claim, it has saved millions of children from social exclusion and delinquency.
"It's more about the music as a tool for social development. Of course you can get really high quality and musical excellence, but the most important is to create human beings with values, create people who can share with others. That's what El Sistema does," Venezuelan teacher and conductor Ron Davis Alvarez told Xinhua.
Davis Alvarez is also a beneficiary of El Sistema. Born in the Caracas favelas amid poverty, violence and crime, he enrolled in his local class at the age of 10, while he was working as an ice-cream seller. It was his grandmother, who lost a son to violence, showed him the way.
"My grandmother always said 'I want my grandkids to be safe'. She found the music as a safe place," he recalls. "So, through that, I did not only learn to play the violin, I learned values, I learned responsibility, I learned to respect others," said the conductor.
At 14, Davis Alvarez started teaching other El Sistema students and, by the age of 16, he was an orchestra conductor. Now, he is the artistic director of El Sistema Sweden, but travels often to train and assist El Sistema teachers all over the world and help them build better communities.
The aim is to give children a haven from problems, where they feel respected, and a cause to be passionate about. "The power of music is incredible. Because it doesn't only change kids, it changes parents, it changes teachers, it changes conductors," the director said.
In Sweden, Davis Alvarez set up an orchestra of young refugees coming mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. As he says, working with traumatized children is not an easy task, but they can thrive in a peaceful environment. "It is not easy to change the sound of a bomb with that of applause," he stressed.
As El Sistema Greece co-founder Sophie Lambrou finds, the impact of the music program on refugee children is tremendous. "In only one or two months they learn for the first time what a classroom is like, they learn to express and connect with their feelings, to work together in spite of where they come from and what their culture is and, of course, they learn to have fun and escape this context of hardship and violence they're used to."
In Greece, El Sistema was launched less than a year ago in underprivileged districts of Athens as well as in three refugee camps, where it offers free music lessons two or three times a week. Its aim is the social integration of vulnerable social groups through music. "We try to go to areas where children wouldn't otherwise have access to musical education," Lambrou told Xinhua.
More than 500 children have taken El Sistema lessons this year, learning to sing and play orchestral instruments. The repertoire consists mainly of classical music, but also traditional Greek folk repertoire, that will give refugee children a shortcut to the Greek language and culture, and traditional folk pieces from their countries of origin.
And, indeed, one of the most moving moments of the Herodion concert was the performance of traditional Syrian song Lama Bada. As the orchestra's conductors said, when this song was heard during one of the rehearsals at Skaramagas camp and all the children started to sing along, they immediately knew they had to include it in their repertoire.
For Syrian refugee Hussain Badran, who played the oud in Lama Bada, this was a once in a lifetime experience. "This thing is exciting for me, it's amazing. This is what I want. I don't care about countries or peoples. I just want to be with people that play and sing," he said.
Badran fled war in Syria in 2014, he stayed for three years in Turkey before crossing the Aegean eight months ago. To cover for the trip's expenses, he had to sell his oud.
A man of many talents, singing, playing music, composing and painting, Badran has been loving art since he had memories. "An artist. That's my dream, that's my life, why I am here," he affirmed.
And it was this determination to show the world his talents that made him not give up in any hardship.
For Badran, who had never seen an orchestra before in his life, the SEYO summer camp opened a door to a world of new opportunities and mutual understanding. As he says, he has never been happier in his life.
"Music makes people think as one. I'm not Arab, I'm not Muslim, I'm not Christian, I'm not Greek, I'm not German, I'm not anything. I'm just a musician, I'm just a human," he stressed.