Musicians Without Borders - War Divides, Music Connects » Tigers and Hope: Borders and Music in El Salvador

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Posts Tagged ‘El Salvador’

Tigers and Hope: Borders and Music in El Salvador





by Laura Hassler


“Nana, you a tiger!,” she shrieks, and I roar at her and she squeals with delight and runs her little 3-year-old escape, laughing all the way. Maya, my little granddaughter, with her funny, made-up words, her bright dark eyes, her spontaneous hugs: more precious to me than words can tell.

I read about “child separations” at the US-Mexico border—thousands of children ripped from their parents’ arms, lost somewhere: in cages, prisons, or for-profit US adoption agencies. Most of these families, torn apart at the border, are fleeing violence and grueling poverty in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. I think about our Maya and tears flow for those little, amazing, smart, spontaneous children, and their mamas, papas, and nanas who may never again hold them in their arms or play tiger with them.


Armonia Cuscatleca

Last week, I was asked to write a letter of endorsement for a Salvadoran family—a mother and two children– who had managed to enter the US, fleeing violence and grueling poverty. They would come before a judge, and a letter, attesting to their honest, hard-working, reliable character, might help. The children had been members of Armonia Cuscatleca, playing violin in the children’s orchestra in a village in El Salvador, a project currently supported by Musicians Without Borders.

Armonia Cuscatleca brings music to children living in poverty in a region ruled by gang violence, the brutal inheritance of a war that had nothing to do with them. But such is war: decades later, it leaves behind poverty, loss, division, and a culture of violence.


Hope Is Merely the Decision to Act

I see the photos of the children of Armonia Cuscatleca, playing violins and cellos in an orchestra, smiling, laughing, making music together, performing on stage, representing their village for their families, in neighboring towns, even for the president. Again, I think of Maya. If she lived here, in El Salvador, how I would wish for such an orchestra for her.

Hope is merely the decision to act, they say, and this children’s orchestra came into being because someone decided to act. A young Salvadoran musician, raised in the US, returned to his native village with a few donated violins and started a to teach children to play music. Some children leave, their families fleeing violence and poverty. Others stay. And the orchestra grows and something like a community, something like hope, emerges.

In a place like El Salvador, or at the Mexico/ US border, as musicians, how can we act? what can we do?


We can work in communities. We can bring music to places where children have nothing, we can connect with them and help build a culture of inclusion, creativity, community, and nonviolence.


And we can raise voices through our music. We can tell the stories, protest the injustice, stand in solidarity with those who are excluded, separated, incarcerated.


For all the little Mayas everywhere, let us be the tigers, let us bring on the music, powered by hope—the decision to act.













Connecting Through Music: Music Making in Suchitoto

As we wrap up 2018, enjoy 6 different powerful stories on our programs, the day-to-day challenges we face, and how we use music to transform lives. Our second story comes from Miguel Ortega, Program Manager of Soy Música


by Miguel Ortega

“We are born with creativity, we just need the space to develop it. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect, but if we feel creative, we should be able to create something without fear or complex. Soy Música is such a positive learning for me, that after being in the workshops, I try to put it into practice at all times, with my family, friends, neighbors. This helps me to be a better person. Just open our minds and make a change in our lives.” Soy Música trainee, 2018


Working in places like El Salvador, we find ourselves, many times, in environments and communities where music has never been introduced before. Last February, the town of Suchitoto, was one of these places. Suchitoto has lived through the worst of the El Salvadoran civil war, it is presently a town that is striving to become a national cultural point of reference.


Arriving for our 3rd week of training with Soy Música program, with 35 teachers and facilitators, our aim was to encourage the trainees and participants to embrace creativity, while ensuring we rid ourselves of prejudgements and attitudes; our main focus was to empower the group to work together to tell their story through song.
It was our third time at this particular school in Suchitoto. Like many schools in the area, there was no music program, for many of the children, this would be their first musical experience. We opened a door to creativity and the students were quick to catch on, enthusiastically creating lyrics, melodies, and movements that told a story.


In a society that is still suffering from the effects of civil war conflicts, we know the importance of not only creating a space where the children are able to unleash their creativity but space where they can feel heard. Soy Música aims to bring social change and break the cycle of violence in the whole territory of El Salvador. Beginning with the teachers, we create spaces for creation, understanding and connection, space where our trainees are empowered to go through a personal change and later bring that change to others.


Support our work in El Salvador today. Your donations, big and small, help us deliver programs that impact thousands of people every day. Donate today and become a friend for just €5 a month!



Interview: Pablo Mendez Granadino

Interview with Pablo Mendez Granadino, founder of Armonia Cuscatleca and MWB partner, about growing up in a family of musicians, his native country of El Salvador and how he used his music education to start a musical education program. Armonia Cuscatleca performed at the Cello Biennale Amsterdam this October.

What brought you to music? Has it always been part of your environment?

Life has brought me to music. I am very lucky to have been raised by a family of musicians. To my knowledge, I am a fourth generation musician coming from string players, marching band directors, singers, and composers.

Do you play an instrument? If so, which one and why?

I’d like to say I’m a violinist by trade, although I love to jam on the piano, guitar, bass, cello and percussion. My father is a professional violinist and he gave me a tiny violin when I was about 4, since then I always felt it necessary to keep playing. I remember as a kid wondering when the school day would end so that I can get home and practice, both to please my father and feed my obsession.

When was Armonia Cuscatleca founded? What was the inspiration?

Armonia Cuscatleca was founded in January 2016. I finally had the chance to visit my native country El Salvador after more than 10 years. During my visit, I stayed with my grandmother in a small rural town San Pedro Perulapan. I instantly fell in love with what my country has to offer. Every June, San Pedro celebrates its “fiestas patronales” with a carnival full of music, rides, typical food and comedy acts. From about 6 am-midnight daily, the organizers hire marching bands to join them through the streets with celebratory caravans. I was told that the instruments used by the school bands are kept away in closets until the fiestas happen again in September, then again in June.

Why would they compromise the chance of better quality musicianship? Why don’t they hire full-time music teachers? Since I had been working with Harmony Project in Los Angeles for about 5 years (Harmony Project is a non-profit that offers high-quality music classes in poor neighborhoods of LA), and witnessed how music can change entire communities, I decided that San Pedro Perulapan could also prosper from community music classes.

How was the project initially received by the local community?

The project received a lot of help from the local mayor’s office, the consulate of El Salvador in Los Angeles and the public school system. The mayor along with the consulate helped organize for the instruments to be shipped without taxation. They coordinated with the Ministry of Education to give us a classroom in the local elementary school. There was a lot of excitement and positive energy in the community.


How has the project grown?

The project has grown in size and popularity within the international community. We now have a steady 45 students receiving violin, viola, cello, and contrabass classes. We have been praised by the president of El Salvador Sanchez Ceren and been on many television and radio programs. In 2017 I was introduced to Musicians Without Borders. They have introduced so many community music techniques as well as ways to cope with working in a violent community. We were very lucky and fortunate to be invited to the Cello Biennale in Amsterdam by Musicians without Borders and hope this is only the beginning of our opportunities to travel internationally.

What is the biggest difference you see in how music affects the kids in El Salvador vs the kids in L.A.?

Because there are no professional musicians in San Pedro, I feel the children in ES have no one to look up to musically. I think it is hard for them to imagine a life in the music industry and look at it as more of a hobby, which is fine. Children in LA have the Hollywood Bowl, the LA Phil, Capitol Records, and the Disney Center to inspire their amount of participation in the music industry. The children and community in ES need more inspiration to help push towards playing music professionally. However, Los Angeles is massive compared to San Pedro Perulapan, with our 43 students, it is possible to say that almost every family is connected to AC in some way.

Overall, how did parents initially react to the project? Were most parents supportive of their children playing music?

Most parents are very happy to have their children playing music. I have had conflicts with a few parents about the repertoire we play, or where or for whom we play. I recently had a very interesting conversation with one parent who believes that Harry Potter was demonic and anti-christ. He didn’t want his child to participate while we played the theme music from the Harry Potter movies. We came to terms and the student keeps coming to class, I exempt this student from playing Harry Potter music. Also in El Salvador, as I mentioned earlier, music as a profession is still taboo. It is related to alcoholism, drug usage, a waste of time and impossible to make a decent living. I think my father, myself and the musicians we invite to the pueblo are able to tell a different story. Life of a musician is definitely difficult, but which profession isn’t?

Was there a specific moment in the project when you realized, “this is really working”

I think that one of the main reasons for the commencement and growth of this project is to help San Pedros’ sense of community. To fortify the population and help them forgive and forget our violent revolution in the 80’s and 90’s. To have us smiling and laughing again. We are not a materialistic people, we do not need much to make us happy, what I think we lack are opportunities to feel empowered or dignified. Salaries are very low, work hours are very long, families are broken from violence, immigration or health issues, many fathers are missing. As a community, AC decided to have a typical foods sale to fundraise for the “day of the dead” celebrations in our local cemeteries. Many parents and children alike donated their time and energy this day. We were rained on, our shoes covered in mud, but everyone kept smiling and laughing. For the sake of the continuation of music classes, the community came together and forgot about their politics, about their religious differences and the violence that plagues our communities. This was when I knew music or the want of music for lack thereof, can help heal our wounds of war and poverty.

Soy Música – Training Week III

We’re back in El Salvador for the third training week in our program Soy Música.

We are training 35 Salvadoran music teachers and community facilitators to become community music leaders, and use music as a tool to promote inclusion and social harmony among thousands of children in El Salvador.

The program is in partnership with Unicef El Salvador and the Ministerio de Educación E.S.

Fore more information:


Soy Música launched!

Last week our team traveled to El Salvador to kick off  our new program, Soy Música (I Am Music). Our trainers, Danny Felsteiner Mekori and Pepe Garcia, led the first training week with 37 Salvadoran musicians and teachers, who are learning to apply our methodologies to use music for inclusion and social harmony.

The program is in partnership with UNICEF and the Ministry of Education of El Salvador, both have invited Musicians without Borders to run our yearlong Community Music Leadership Training.

We are training 37 music teachers and community facilitators, reaching thousands of children in schools and communities across the country.

Our trainees practiced their new skills already this first week, visiting a school where 200 children enjoyed music making for 2 hours.

See more photos here.