Jose Antonio Abreu, pictured in 2012, created an internationally-acclaimed music education system in Venezuela (Photo: AFP)
Jose Antonio Abreu, a musician, politician and economist who created a network of more than 1,500 orchestras and choirs for young people in Venezuela, died on Saturday at age 78.
Known as "El Maestro" in his home country, Abreu started the project in 1975, and his internationally-acclaimed "El Sistema" ("The System") has grown to include more than 900,000 children, taught by 10,000 teachers throughout Venezuela.
The project began with just 11 musicians in a basement in downtown Caracas -- and flourished to touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids, 75 percent of them poor and many from rural areas, according to the institution.
"They are boys that we are taking away from drugs and violence. Just sitting a boy in a rehearsal to play, when he could be on the corner smoking marijuana, is already a very important achievement," he told AFP several years ago.
The organization's goal is now to reach one million young people.
Education Minister Elias Jaua hailed Abreu as "a great Venezuelan."
"Thanks to Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu for his beautiful legacy for the boys, girls and young people of Venezuela," Jaua wrote on Twitter.
"With devoted love and eternal gratitude to my mentor and father of El Sistema," Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and a product of Abreu's program, wrote on Twitter along with a photo of himself and "El Maestro."
Little is known about the personal life of Abreu, who was born on May 7, 1939 in Valera.
His innovative teaching model, which boasts replicas in 50 countries, has earned him a number of prestigious awards, including from UNESCO and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.
In addition to his landmark music program, Abreu also played a role in Venezuelan politics: he was a legislator and also served as culture minister during president Carlos Andres Perez's second term.
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