In a country as polarised as Venezuela, it is hard to think of a public figure that can work for nine different administrations over four decades and come out at the other end unscathed. But Jose Antonio Abreu is such a man.
A musician, economist and former cabinet minister, Abreu is best known as the founder of the internationally acclaimed music programme El Sistema that has, over 38 years, provided free music education to three million children - to international acclaim.
Despite receiving many international prizes, the man known as Maestro Abreu has not lost his humility. “The orchestra holds within itself its own capability to exist, live and perpetuate itself,” he told BBC News during the Japan tour of one of El Sistema's renowned youth orchestras.
Music runs deep in Maestro Abreu's family. His maternal grandparents moved from Italy to Venezuela in the 19th century where his grandfather founded a local orchestra. His mother played the piano, and his father the guitar. Abreu pursued music studies, but later moved to Caracas to study economics in order to help support his family. He worked as an economist for the government and was elected as a substitute member of parliament in the 1960s, but music was never far from his mind.
“I had a deep frustration because I lived in a country that only had one orchestra, where 70% of musicians were foreign. Other countries such as Argentina, Brazil or Mexico had reached great musical development,” he recalls. It was 1975 and Abreu was 35.
At the first meeting, 11 students showed up in a garage where he had set up 25 music stands. “They were so determined and so enthusiastic that I understood from that very moment that success was guaranteed,” he remembers. What started as an experiment has become the most successful and praised music education programme in the world, with spin-offs across the globe. The idea is simple; children are taught from the age of three to play music for free during afternoon classes, with a focus on orchestral practise. There are now 285 nucleos (teaching centres) around the country, often located in poor and violent neighbourhoods.
“It's very much a product of Mr Abreu himself,” says Tricia Tunstall, a music educator and author of “Changing Lives”, a book about El Sistema. “I think he is one of the great visionaries of the 20th Century.”
According to Frank Di Polo, one of the co-founders of El Sistema, Abreu leads an almost ascetic life with books his only belongings, and the children he teaches are like a family to him.
Edicson Ruiz is one of El Sistema's many success stories. He came from a poor family and it was thanks to Abreu that he kept up his music studies. El Maestro bought him a double bass, tutored him personally and gave him a chance to earn a living. In 2002, when he was 17, he became the youngest musician ever admitted to Berlin's Philharmonic Orchestra.
At 74, Maestro Abreu's health is deteriorating. He often has to hold onto the arm of a colleague when walking. But he says he does not worry about El Sistema's future without him.
“El Sistema will keep faring wonderfully well because it is educating hundreds of thousands of youngsters, all with a great musical vocation, willing to work hard, knowledgeable of their mission and capable of carrying it out,” he says.