José Abreu, Legendary Venezuelan Musician and Founder of El Sistema Youth Orchestras, Dies

Jose Abreu
The founder of the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras Jose Antonio Abreu attends a free concert by the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphonic Orchestra at Teresa Carreno theater in Caracas February 16, 2012. Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel is directing a series of concerts to celebrate the 37th anniversary of the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras of Venezuela. LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Famed Venezuelan orchestra conductor Jose Abreu, who founded the renown El Sistema, a project that brought thousands of Venezuelan children out of poverty through music, died at the age of 78 on Saturday.

Abreu's death was announced by Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, where he is known in his home country as "El Maestro," who left behind an exceptional legacy.

Described by many as a charismatic and humble leader who put his life work into what he called a "human development" project, Abreu created El Sistema, or The System, in 1975 with just 11 people in a garage. From the very first rehearsal, he knew the weight it would carry.

"I told those first 11 members of the orchestra that we were creating the beginning of a network that would eventually turn Venezuela into a musical power by rescuing children from low-income families," said in an interview with The Guardian back in 2012.

The program currently includes more than 900,000 children and is taught by 10,000 teachers in Venezuela.

It transformed how musical education was brought to Venezuela's poor youth that has since won international acclaim and become a model program for several other countries.

"We know that the efforts we put into it are not enough, given the size of the challenge ahead. But this is our dream. And we will keep fighting for it, every day," Abreu said in the interview.

Abreu was born in the Venezuela city of Valera on May 7, 1939 where music ran in his blood. He began studying music at the age of 9 and from there boosted a career which included an economist and also a stint in politics as a member of parliament.

Through his teachings, he inspired musicians for the next generation and beyond.

Upon Abreu's passing, one of his most beloved students, Gustavo Dudamel‏, a Venezuelan conductor who is currently the Los Angeles Philharmonic director, paid a tribute to his teacher with a picture that said, "with devoted love and eternal gratitude to my mentor and father of El Sistema."

Con todo mi amor y eterna gratitud a nuestro padre y creador de El Sistema.

With devoted love and eternal gratitude to my mentor and father of El Sistema.

— Gustavo Dudamel (@GustavoDudamel) March 24, 2018

Venezuelan Education Minister Elias Jaua hailed the famed Maestro on his Twitter: "Thanks to Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu for his beautiful legacy for the boys, girls and young people of Venezuela."

"The Venezuelan people that you so loved today are crying for you Maestro," Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said in a statement reported by the Washington Post. "We are comforted by knowing that your legacy will remain alive in the hands and voices of the children of the youth orchestras." Maduro also said there would be three national mourning days for Venezuela for Abreu's passing.

Un gran hombre partió físicamente. Pero él ya trascendió, su obra está en los barrios de Venezuela. Hemos decretado 3 días de duelo nacional por el fallecimiento del gran maestro Abreu.

— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) March 25, 2018