Climbing out of hell

Located at the edge of Brazil’s largest favela, Heliopolis, the Baccarelli Institute is a safe haven for 2000 of Brazil’s poorest children, in danger every day of their lives, with inadequate education, nutrition and accommodation. With the Brazilian government only able to supply half a day of education for these children, the rest of the time they are left to roam the favelas. 

Heliopolis, on the outskirts of Sao Paulo

The violence and poverty surrounding these young people result in generations of young people who can only aspire to being at best an extremely lowly paid servant in the house of a rich member of Sao Paulo society and at worst, a pawn in the drug trafficking of the cartels, a victim of daily violence and terror. This lack of hope makes the favelas one of the most dangerous places to live on Earth.

20 years ago after a devastating fire in Heliopolis, ex priest and music teacher Silvio Baccarelli realised the need to turn things around in the favela and try and give the children hope, to help them strive for something other than the desperate lives they were fated for. After 6 months of trying to persuade the little school in the favela that classical music would help the children with discipline, co ordination, brain development and keep them away from the cartels, he finally managed to work with a handful of children and the results were spectacular. Children who previously could not even co ordinate their arms to move properly as they were so malnourished and whose brains hadn’t developed properly because of neglect, were able to clap in time to music, sing and move to a beat.

Baccarelli powered on, obtaining the use of an old juice factory for his first institute where children could come before or after school as a place of refuge, learning and fun. Friendships were formed, skills learnt, pride in their work developed, all under the watchful and strict eye of Baccarelli himself. 

Discipline is paramount at the Institute. In a favela with 30,000 children and places for only 2000, a Baccarelli place is the most coveted thing in Heliopolis. The children are not allowed to be late or disrespect their teachers or each other. If they are seen to be not working, they get a black mark. If they get 3 marks, they lose their place. The result is the most positive and effective working environment I’ve ever seen. In my week spent working with these children, some as young as 4, some about to embark on adult life, there was not one moment when their concentration dipped. Their intense focus and joy of learning was a sight to behold. Their incredulity that I had flown in a plane 11 hours to visit A Baccarelli choir raising the roof them brought tears to my eyes and at the end of every session, each one came up and hugged me tightly – a Brazilian tradition which you see everywhere here. But their hugs were that much tighter and lingered on just enough to remind you that our trip to visit them had injected excitement and wonder into their lives on a scale I couldn’t previously imagine.

Of the 68 teachers who travel daily to the Baccarelli, some are professional Brazilian musicians, cobbling together a living with a patchwork of gigs around Sao Paulo, playing with one of only two poorly paid orchestras for the whole of Sao Paulo (with a population of 12.5 million ), teaching the 1% of the population who can afford private school and at the Baccarelli Institute. The other teachers are Baccarelli alumni, loving music and trying desperately to improve conditions for the children unfortunate enough to be born there.

Bacarelli’s vision was not to create professional musicians-  although this has become a happy by-product. His vision was to give hope and help these kids strive for something more – whether that was a career in business, administration or law or whether it was just to have enough pride in themselves to keep trying to obtain a job other than as a drugs mule or resorting to crime and alcoholism. He has enabled them to see the whole world, through music and remind them that they are just as worthy, interesting and talented as their infinitely richer counterparts.

At the age of 16, the young students are eligible to join one of the orchestras at the Baccarelli. ‘We give them a salary of $500 a month’ explains Edmilson Venturelli, director of the Institute ‘so that their families will let them stay here.  At that age (and younger) their parents need them to be bringing in money to the family so we provide this to enable them to continue studying – learning to play in the orchestras, taking academic and instrumental lessons.’

Sinfonica Baccarelli in rehearsal

The last 20 years has seen several Baccarelli graduates win places in Brazil’s orchestras – an incredible step away from the future for which they were destined. But many students go on to different professions, using the skills and support they have received to make that seemingly impossible leap.

Each day as we waved goodbye to the ‘Buscarelli’ bus which takes the students back to their homes, I felt sick to the pit of my stomach at the thought of what awaits them every day. Whether it is domestic violence, trying to avoid being conscripted by the drugs cartels, hunger (many of them only eat at the Baccarelli) and cold, they all live a life which we in the west would consider  unacceptable.

Electricity wires feeding into homes in Heliopolis

The Institute is often called to help these children escape from alcoholic parents and violence. ‘We are often called in the middle of the night to rescue a Baccarelli student and sometimes their siblings too.’ Says Venturelli. ‘We take them somewhere safe until we can find somewhere else for them to live.’ As we drove through Heliopolis, a web of black electricity wires above our heads distorted the view of the sky. A home which should have housed 2 families at the absolute maximum had 15 wires entering it – 15 families living in insanitary conditions, the buildings growing higher and higher as new people joined the families and more babies were born. These ramshackle buildings are death traps, shoddily built and lacking proper foundations and sanitation but the poor of Heliopolis have nowhere else to build but upwards. 

But despite the terribly hard lives these children endure, I have never seen so much joy in music making in one place. Music is the one safe and happy thing in their lives and they throw themselves into it with every fibre of their being. In my week teaching at the Baccarelli, I experienced 4 year olds who concentrated intensely for an hour and learnt more in one lesson with me than most would in a week. They never sit still when music is being played – music and movement are one complete thing – why would you do one without the other? As soon as they recognise a tune, they start to hum, smiles spreading across their faces, bobbing up and down in their seats. And when they’re let loose on a stage a magical thing happens. Their enthusiasm and love of the music spreads to the audience. As the stage becomes alive with happiness, you can feel their energy spreading infectiously throughout the room and by the end, everyone is on their feet clamouring for more. Surely this is what music should feel like for us all? These children from one of the poorest parts of the world taught me that in their own way, they are the richest.

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