By Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS (Reuters)

Jose Abreu, the award-winning founder of a programme that pulled thousands of Venezuelan children from crime and poverty through music, died on Saturday, aged 78

Abreu founded the globally acclaimed El Sistema, or The System, in 1975 in a garage with just nine musicians. From that, the network expanded to 300 choirs and orchestras that received awards from the Royal Swedish Academy and UNESCO.

“With devoted love and eternal gratitude to my mentor and father of El Sistema,” wrote Gustavo Dudamel, a famed Venezuelan conductor now the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on Twitter alongside a photo of himself with Abreu.


Conductor Dudamel and founder of National System of Children and Youth Orchestras Abreu attend free concert by Simon Bolivar Youth Symphonic Orchestra in Caracas
Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel (L) and the founder of the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras of Venezuela Jose Antonio Abreu attend a free concert by the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphonic Orchestra at the Teresa Carreno theater in Caracas February 16, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins


Abreu was born on May 7, 1939, in the small Andean city of Valera. He began his musical studies at nine and moved to Caracas to study composition.

“Abreu has given life to a musical system with which young people can be safe from the dangers of the street, of crime, of drugs,” said Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic, according to the El Sistema website.


Abreu’s model has been followed by other Latin American countries as well as some in Europe

Dudamel has become the public face of El Sistema in recent years, often conducting free concerts in Caracas’ grimy downtown area.


Founder of National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela Abreu carries child as he arrives at free concert in Caracas
Founder of the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela Jose Antonio Abreu carries a child as he arrives at a free concert at the low-income neighborhood of La Vega in Caracas August 2, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins


He has spoken out strongly in support of anti-government protests that last year rocked Venezuela for four months, leaving more than 120 people dead, including an 18-year-old musician from the Venezuela National Youth Orchestra.

“We are deeply moved by the physical departure … of Maestro Abreu,” said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on state television.


(Additional reporting by Corina Pons and Girish Gupta; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Nick Zieminski)