Luis Szarán, 53, is the founder and director of the music program Sonidos de la Tierra [Sounds of the Earth] and conductor of the Symphonic Orchestra of Asunción. He's a national celebrity in his native Paraguay, and here he talks to FRONTLINE/World reporter Monica Lam about a life lived through music.
Q: Monica Lam: Tell me about the history of music in Paraguay.
A: Luis Szarán: The original music of Paraguay, the music that finds its roots in this region of the world, is very interesting. The indigenous music comes from 17 ethnic groups of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It is a very rich music, linked to their rituals, lifestyle and environment. There is significant Spanish influence as well as some African musical components in Paraguayan music. It's the fusion of these cultures that gives birth to Paraguayan music. Primarily influenced by Spanish mestizos who adapted it to their lifestyle and gave birth to music of unprecedented beauty -- the music of Paraguay. The only thing that is left as the indigenous contribution is the language. Much of the music from Paraguay uses text that comes from the Guarani language. But unfortunately the text was also adapted to the tyranny of the style of Spanish verse. In other words, it lost its freshness, its freedom of expression, but at the very least it preserves the origins of a rich language, which is important for us, for we are one of the only bilingual countries in the world.
Q: Did the music of the missions sound very European?
A: The music that was played in the Jesuit missions was totally European. That is to say, the Jesuit missionaries disregarded the music that was played by the local ethnic groups that lived in the towns of the missions. They created what was later called "transplant baroque"; in other words, they brought baroque style, the language of the Counter-[Reformation], the language of an exuberant culture. Indigenous groups adopted the style because it worked well with their rituals, with the expressive character of their rituals and music. And that baroque style even came with its own language, Latin, the official language used for religious practices in all the Jesuit missions. Guarani was used for conversation. Spanish was prohibited.
Q: Tell me more about the role of music in Paraguay in general.
A: I believe that Paraguayans are intimately related to music. That is to say, in many parts of the world, music is tied to religious practices and other components of life. But here in Paraguay, I feel that music is linked to everything. When a boy dies in Paraguay, for instance, he is buried with music -- with long and cheerful chants; music is a part of such quotidian spiritual gatherings. It's important for the strengthening of our identity. Thus, our music is very rich; it comprises a musical repertoire that has an infinite number of songs and possible melodies that travel throughout the world and represent the spirit of the Paraguayan. The Paraguayan is amicable, generous, creative and suffering. These are a people who have suffered a lot. We have had more than a century and a half of dictatorships, civil wars and wars with other countries. There is a sentiment of pain and at the same time of solidarity. The Paraguayan is very amicable toward foreigners; here we do not have feelings of hate toward other cultures. There are no racial problems or people who are marginalized. I myself have experienced this, coming from a family that is originally from countries of the Far East. They came here and stayed and have loved this country in an extraordinary way. They transmit that feeling. I do not have enough time to do all the good things I would like to do for Paraguay, specifically through music.
Q: How did you feel when you came across this forgotten music of the Jesuit missions?
A: I felt something in that moment like when someone falls in love and says to himself or herself, "This is the right person to be with, to grow old with in life." I felt a magnetic attraction toward a music that would later become a concert that took place 20 years ago. Right here in this place, we played the same music that was listened to on a daily basis three centuries ago. Since then it has traveled the entire globe. I have performed in more than 150 concerts in Europe, Latin America and in Paraguay, of course, with this music. It is a testimony of past times -- music of great beauty, spirituality and musicality.
There is something very important I would like to add. The discovery of this music [by chance in the ruins of a mission church in Bolivia in the 1970s] and the chance to interpret it, has allowed us to develop one of the most valuable projects of cultural exchange. We have taken music that came here three centuries ago back to its original place in Europe. As such, it is a culture of back-and-forth. I had the honor to take this music back to the place of its original composer, Domenico Zipoli. The Italians knew nothing about the music.
Q: Tell me more about the way of life inside the missions.
A: The phenomenon of the Jesuit missions has been studied from all perspectives -- political, philosophical, religious, economic. This is because it was a utopia that sought to develop a perfect society -- what is called the land of no evil, God's republic, the republic of love and harmony -- and in a certain way, I am pretty certain that they were able to achieve that. However, it was a rigid society when it came to protecting the mission from foreign contamination. This was done so that the indigenous [people] would not be exploited in the way it had happened in other places, such as in Brazil under the Portuguese reign or under the Spanish in this region.
The Jesuit missions were towns that were developed based on social harmony. The indigenous people worked and gave part of their work to the church. The church in turn protected the surroundings and ensured education, the creation of jobs, the protection of the widows. It was like a socialist state. There was a quasi-military regime based on the indigenous [population's] political scheme of government. For example, here in Trinidad, around 3,000 indigenous people lived with only two European clergymen. All the power structure was organized around the social construction of the indigenous. Clergymen would intervene only in case of serious conflicts. There was great economic development and an increase in population. Many indigenous people would leave the jungle to come to these missions and live more securely and more calmly. They didn't live like nomads in the missions, and [they] avoided being captured as slaves. As such, they tenaciously defended such places against invasions from Brazil.
Q: What aspects of life in the missions most inspired you?
A: One of the things that most impresses me about the way of life of the Jesuit missions was the practice of learning through art. Through art, they were able to educate people in all other aspects of life -- respect, the democratic spirit, teamwork, creativity, systematic work, discipline. All learned by playing in an orchestra, by making wood cravings in groups, by creating the fabulous architecture that we have here at this moment. I drew my inspiration from that, and I tried to emulate it in Sounds of the Earth. That is education through music, an acquirement of good habits, a motivation for the youth to behave properly, to make them into good citizens -- people with a love of service to their country, their identity; respect for their families, their society -- this is called the orchestra of the school of life.
Q: How did you come up with the name "Sounds of the Earth" (Sonidos de la Tierra)?
A: When I decided to go forward with this program, it logically took me a long time to find a name that reflected the spirit of the program we wanted to develop. The name had to envelop the idea that there's discrimination in the world. It had to touch upon the idea that there's a sort of religious fanaticism that is the cause behind many of problems of the world. The project was going to be called "Sounds of My Land," by wanting to strengthen our own national identity. But then the idea matured that we wanted to unite with the entire world. We wanted to unite the world with a sentiment that was born in Paraguay, a sentiment that's created when good people join together.
Q: What kinds of music do children play in the program?
A: We incorporate classical music, traditional music and music from other countries. Every music stresses different technical aspects for the participants, but it also allows them to open up their minds to new perspectives. Paraguay is a Mediterranean country, where most of its inhabitants have spent hundreds of years looking at their belly buttons, thinking that they're the center of the universe. Paraguay had also turned its back to a lot of the advances that have taken over the world -- technical, biological, information ideas -- and all the things that the rest of the world was gaining. Our hope is to open the minds of these young people in a generous way and for them to have a desire to learn everything there is to learn in this world. This dynamic has been very productive and has given us very good results. For example, when a student sings or listens to music from Italy, then, when that student is in school, he is more motivated to learn about the geography of Italy.
They play jazz; they play the Beatles. Michael Jackson. We have a jazz orchestra as well.
Q: How has Sounds of the Earth affected people here and has it also changed you?
A: I think that in the time we've been working on this, we've created a big social family. It's a place where one feels welcomed and at home. I remember a story from the times of the missions. One of the missionaries described these little pueblos and their similar layout: the church, the plaza, and to the side the houses of the indigenous, the door, and the places where they farmed. And in the next town, it would be the same. It was the same set-up, the same justice system, the same way of life, the same schedule. The man said that whenever he visited a town like this, he felt it was always the same phantom town that was following him wherever he went. I feel it gives me a sense of security because, wherever I go, there's the same set-up. I go to a place, and I find the same human warmth and joy and friendship. And I find the same affection and love from the children and parents of the community. And so this is something that has enriched me profoundly. Many people have given me awards, and many have congratulated me for this work of social transformation in the lives of young people in Paraguay. But nevertheless, I always say that I am the one who has been transformed. I am the one who receives so much affection and warmth and sincerity from people who look you in the eyes with such transparency. That's incredible. You can read into the souls of these people. This is what I find in every town.
Q: What's one of your favorite parts of running the program?
A: It's a lot of work. What makes me most excited is that we have been able to do it with little economic help and leadership. It was not a donation but an association for the betterment of the lives of young people and towns as a whole. And what makes me happiest is when I see all the initiatives people develop on their own, with their own creativity. They know how to organize and develop a project that is absolutely feasible and sustainable.
Q: What has been the most difficult part of running the program?
A: When we started five years ago, the most difficult part was to connect with people emotionally. Paraguay has been living in desperate circumstances. We don't believe in politicians because corruption is absolutely catastrophic. Corruption in the justice system and everywhere else is very visible to the whole world. Paraguay is a very tragic, lamentable country from this point of view. People feel hopeless; they don't believe in anything. So this is a barrier we have to overcome.
People wonder, who is this well-known man they see on television, who travels throughout the world, and what he can offer them. So we unite everyone. And the fact that I am well known in Paraguay has made it easier to come in contact with different political leaders, community leaders, educators. I get them together and say, we're going to work together for the children and young people of the country. The young people of Paraguay are this country's main resource: strong young people with the motivation to better themselves and who do not become discouraged and give up in the face of hardship. But they needed to know how to organize such a thing. This was the first obstacle and the most difficult. And it lasted one or two years, until we started to create social networks that included exchanges and united neighboring communities. We looked for a way to unite everyone and to help find ways to also train the adults so they could better organize, administer and find resources. It was like a miracle. From the financial support we have invested in terms of money, it has only 8 percent from us, against 92 percent that people have generated on their own. It's a miracle.
Q: How have years under a dictatorship defined the country?
A: The years of dictatorship were not just the years of Alfredo Stroessner. We have lived under a military regime for many years, and a sense of mistrust has been rooted in the culture of the Paraguayan man. This is one of the greatest harms of the dictatorship. Another is the harm it did to education. We have a mediocre educational system, and one can say that all the problems we have -- whether they are economic, social, political or of corruption -- are rooted in a lack of education. It is very mediocre, and it has incited a sort of social abandonment of the people. It has led people to not believe in their own power. As such, this [Sonidos] project injects new energy, a synergy, as can be seen in other phenomena like cooperatives. This can be felt in Paraguay these last few years. People know that by giving, cooperating and being open-minded, their perspective changes, and they can attain a better quality of life and live under better conditions.
Q: Tell me more about your efforts to expand Sonidos into urban areas? What has it been like to work there? What are some of the challenges?
A: We began in communities from inner parts of the country. In the greater scheme of things, we didn't focus our work in areas that are called "high risk" because that required a much more complex system, where we would need social workers, psychologists. We worked in a small team, but we learned a lot and worked through exemplary cases involving changing the attitude of violent teenagers. This allowed us to develop a new strategy, which led to the Skoll Award grant, and it triggered a relationship with Oxford University and educators from around the world. These relationships have led us to expand our services to areas of more need and collaborate with partners. Like in the Cateura [the shantytown community built around the city dump in the capital, Asunción], with Procicla, the garbage-recycling program in Asunción. There's also the Don Bosco Roga, a religious organization that works with children from the streets who live in the bus terminals, particularly in Asunción. As such, we started to incorporate these marginalized kids with normal kids. Allowing them to share with one another, to eat together and live together with mutual respect for one another. This foments social interaction. A boy who grew up wealthy learns from the boy that used to be on the street, and vice versa.
We already have cases from the Don Bosco Roga program of teenagers who used to mug [people] for cell phones and wallets with knives, who are now building a violin. And they know that, with this instrument, they will have a dignified profession and will be able to bring bread to their homes. There's another case of someone who is currently studying to be a professional musician and become part of a professionally dignified orchestra.
Q: Five years on, how far and wide has your program spread?
A: We cover a lot of ground. We are in 42 communities, in urban centers and in more than 60 very isolated places, where poverty knocks at the door. In every place, it's a complex situation; it involves the parents, their kids and the local social forces. So we don't have an established formula, like the one imposed in the Jesuit missions. Instead, we throw out an idea and let it grow and mature. The final goal is to shake those modern parents who do not have time to look their kids in the eye and accompany them, and say, "This is what you have to do; you have to be here."
Q: Tell me a little about your own background.
A: I was born in Encarnación, and I'm a son of immigrant parents. My father was a musician, but he couldn't practice his profession so he dedicated himself to planting rice. We are eight siblings. I'm the last one. My mother and father made it so that no one would study music. Studying music was not seen in a good light in those days. However, I developed my skill secretly with one of my sisters. When I was 8 years old, I heard a classical guitarist play; I felt that was my world. So I began to practice secretly with a neighbor. When I was 12 years old, I started to compose short melodies and songs. Then I visited Professor José Miranda, who told my sister that I was a genius. He said he wanted to give me a lifelong scholarship, but I had to go to Asunción, the capital, to study. And so my sister did that and I moved to the capital.
Q: So, Master Miranda discovered you. What happened next?
A: I went to the capital, to Asunción, to study with Miranda. He introduced me to other professors; I learned a lot from him about all sorts of theoretical matters. And then I felt I needed to leave the country to acquire more knowledge. And I got scholarships in Argentina, Brazil and, most importantly, to Italy, in Rome, where I studied in the Santa Cecilia Conservatory. While in Rome, I made a lot of friendships in other countries, which later helped me with my work, to attain an international career, to travel the world. So in these 33 years as an orchestra director and composer, I have directed over 1,000 concerts in many places, but most of them in Paraguay.
Q: So it wasn't easy for you, coming from humble beginnings.
A: It's quite interesting how coming from humble roots -- my father was a farmer of low economic means -- I was fortunate to have received generous help from Miranda and others who believed in me. All I could do in exchange was to study, to develop my skills. And I had the luck of becoming successful in what I do, to have made money, become famous and travel the world. And I wanted to give something back, because of all that life gave me. I did not only want to think about myself but look around and see what I could do for others, and so Sonidos de la Tierra came into being.
Q: In a country so poverty stricken, why did you choose music? Why not business, computers? Why music?
A: There is this saying that I always like to think about: "What is the use of tractors without violins?" Meaning that people need to aim toward economic development, but it is imperative that it go hand in hand with developing education and culture. If we achieve prosperity through tractors and computers but don't have any culture or education, we wouldn't be able to enjoy our prosperity. It needs to go together. If we don't succeed economically, at least we have culture and education; then, we will be able to live our poverty with dignity, knowing we can get ahead. That's the reason I chose music.
Q: Why did you take some of the kids from the program to Europe?
A: With the boom that happened in Paraguay's music scene, there were some kids and young musicians with incredible skills whom we wanted to work with so they can develop a career in music. So I've been taking some young students to Europe every once in a while, as an inspiration for others. To show that if you put your mind to it, you will have better opportunities in life and access to other cultures. That's how the project Sonidos de la Tierra was born, to bring together young people from all over the world in a huge musical hug, to know each other and learn together.
Q: And for those who are not geniuses? What happens to them? What do they learn?
A: Well, you need to understand that Sonidos de la Tierra is not only about good musicians; it's about good citizens. So, our investment in them is an investment in citizenship. It's a school for human values. For us, all of this constitutes greater pride than training good musicians. There are already conservatories and universities for that. In our case, music is the excuse to create this network for social change in Paraguay.