Cultures in Music

Music for Hope, El Salvador, Bajo Lempa 2015-16: Part II – A Light in the Darkness

I meant to follow up my last rather gloomy post about events in the Bajo Lempa, El Salvador, during 2015-16 with a much more up-beat overview of the really important work that the teachers, administrators and participants of Music for Hope continued to do even in the midst of the violence that was increasing in the region during that year. Tragically, however, only a couple of weeks after my last post, the community of Nueva Esperanza was attacked on 6th October by a death squad (grupo de exterminioextermination group) during which five members of the community were dragged from their homes in the middle of the night and murdered in the outskirts of the village. These were the first killings in that community since its foundation in 1991. Of course, much changed as a result – a significant number of young people who were in some way associated with the victims fled into exile due to the danger that they might also be targeted as a result of that association.

Music for Hope—a light in the darkness

The project Music for Hope nevertheless continued (and still continues) as a bright light shining out in the darkness. While many of the older youths who formed more experienced groups had had to leave during 2015 and 16, the teachers continued with their formation of younger members of the project; new groups are still coming through and making considerable advances. When I was there in July, it was clear to me, watching the music teachers at work with the kids, how much of an impact they make on a daily basis, both individually to the children and young people who come to them for lessons but also, more broadly, to the communities—in some cases for those who need it the teachers take on almost a parenting role and certainly, in the majority of cases, they act as mentors, who not only teach music and help these kids develop artistic skills, but also provide moral support and life-guidance, helping them to develop their self-confidence, self-worth and civic sensibilities. It was a revelation to observe the trust and openness between the pupils and the teachers within Music for Hope and also to see how positively that impacted on the students’ own interactions with each other. It was also clear to see that the time spent within the project (and the neutral spaces within which the project works) gave the students a welcome relief and escape from the very real and serious stresses they have to face on a daily basis.

The following video-clip filmed while I was there demonstrates the invaluable work that the project was doing during 2016 and continues to do in 2017. Our project administrator Sonia talks about the project and you’ll see the music teachers at work and some of the groups in formation.


Music for Hope: El Salvador, Bajo Lempa – 2015-16


San Marcos Lempa – Map

I was privileged this July (2016) to be able to visit Music for Hope in action again. This was my second visit to the Bajo Lempa and you can see from my earlier posts, my first was in 2013 when I went to document the work of the teachers, the young people who were learning with them, and the groups who were putting that learning into practice. At that time, the gangs were just starting to penetrate the communities at this stage. Things were starting to get tense but there was hope that the situation wouldn’t get much worse. There was, however, a sense of realism meant that there was also an expectation that things would get worse. What I wasn’t prepared for was how bad things actually became.The following post will describe some of what happened in 2015 in El Salvador generally and also in the communities to give some context for my next post (to follow) which will detail the sterling work that the young musicians of the communities of Bajo Lempa are doing to counter the worst effects of the violence that is tearing the country apart.

2015 was one of the most violent years that El Salvador has experienced since the signing of the peace accords in 1992. The death toll due to gang violence reached civil war levels; in 2015, over 6,000 young people were killed in El Salvador in gang-related violence. The month of August was unprecedented with the death toll reaching nearly 1000 (see ‘El Salvador violence up to civil war-era level’, 2nd September 2015, <>).

The Bajo Lempa communities had largely been spared the levels of trauma that were affecting the rest of the country but, nonetheless, they hadn’t escaped unscathed. We knew, for example, that the gangs had penetrated the communities, with Mara Salvatrucha taking control of the majority, but with their mortal enemies, the Barrio 18, taking over the community of El Amarillo. In order to pass from one community to another (for example from La Papalota, El Zamorán or Nueva Esperanza to Amando López), people had to cross gang territories and, as the tension rose, this became increasingly dangerous (especially for young people between the ages of 12 and 25, who are particular targets of these gangs). This risk became a tragic reality in the month of May 2015 with the murder of 15-year-old Jorge Alexander Ramos as he travelled home from school in Nueva Esperanza to Amando López on the school transport. As my earlier video clips mention, that same week, we lost one of our new music teachers, Ñoto, who had to flee into exile due to a case of mistaken identity by the authorities. Ñoto, from a teenager, had been raised within (and, by his own admission, saved by) the project Music for Hope and had become an artist in his own right as lead singer of the group Los Rayos, and latterly (2014-15) a music teacher for the project with the specialism of voice and singing. By all accounts he’d become an upstanding member of the community and fantastic example for all the youngsters of the communities to follow, and his forced exile was a blow to everyone (for Ñoto’s story prior to his exile see the 3 part video clips below or click on:;; Ñoto is still in exile.

Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of the storm that was to break on the communities. Nationally, the government had implemented a zero tolerance approach to the gangs and had effectively militarised certain areas of the country, including the Bajo Lempa. The police and the army were now carrying out joint operations to wipe out the gangs and this placed young people (including our students and teachers) under additional risk. The simple fact of being young meant that they were considered suspect and while still having to negotiate the very real dangers of the gangs, they now also had to run the gauntlet of police and army checkpoints and controls. Young people began to experience considerable difficulties simply moving from one community to another, or even moving around their own, and abuse (both physical and psychological) from over-zealous security forces—and this all the while trying to avoid the dangers of encountering gang members. These risks applied also to our teachers and students and, in order to address this problem, and mitigate the danger as much as possible, Music for Hope printed project t-shirts for all our students and professional ID cards for our teachers. It was now clear to everyone that these young people were part of the project and therefore represented a threat to no-one. With those measures, the harassment and, indeed, danger, for our students and teachers decreased considerably but it was still a real worry.

Unfortunately, though, the general dangers for young people didn’t stop with chance encounters or police-military checkpoints or patrols. Given the geography of the communities, there’s effectively only one entrance from the main road at San Marcos Lempa. If the police were to conduct a raid, a network of lookouts with mobile phones stationed at strategic points along the route into the communities would inform the gangs ahead that they were on their way and the gang members would disappear into the woods; it was impossible for the police to catch them. When the police left, the gangs would return and continue to control the communities. While they began with just a few local members who were always originally part of the communities and therefore didn’t carry out the level abuses normally associated with these gangs, in 2015, the national gang network tightened and armed gang members who weren’t from the communities (rather from the capital San Salvador or other districts Soyapango) became a frequent sight, and extortion and threats against community members subsequently became more commonplace. Aggressive recruitment of young people also increased—if not into the gangs themselves, then as ‘civilian lookouts’ or ‘collaborators’ as they became known.

Reasons for participating are varied: while it’s true that sometimes the apparent life-style (carefree, powerful, unified, and economically secure) may have offered a certain attraction, many of those who did collaborate in one way or another suffered from broken homes. Extreme pressure was placed on young people to collaborate and act as lookouts and it’s perhaps hard for us to imagine the moral dilemma and pressure faced by these teenagers. Before drawing any conclusions we need to consider that kids as young as 12 were faced with the pressure of risking angering the gang hierarchies (and bear in mind they would know full well that if they did that they could be risking their own lives and those of their families). To give into the pressure though would mean becoming entrapped in a cycle of dependency on the gangs, alienation from their communities and families and would also put their lives and those of their family members in extreme danger. A wrong answer at this critical moment could lead to a life or death situation. The decision itself for these teenagers was life or death.

How so?

Apart from them and their families becoming targets of the opposing gang, those youngsters who collaborated became marked in their own communities. In 2015 the communities were being suffocated by the gang conflict. Civic life was on the verge of collapse. As just one example of the fear that permeated the zone, the welcome mural at the entrance of one of the communities that was carefully repainted each year by a team of local youngsters had been irreparably damaged by gang graffiti – the slogan, ver, oir y callar! (see, hear and be silent!) followed by the gang logo had been painted over it. To remove the graffiti would bring an inevitable death sentence. Nevertheless, the police forced youths (non-gang members) from that particular community to paint over the graffiti, so community representatives approached the gang to ask if they could put the murals back to the way they were originally and they were told no, under no circumstances. A year on, the murals are still damaged and can’t be repainted due to fear of reprisals.

So, the communities were desperate and the government was militarising the area. 2015, tragically, saw the return of a phenomenon that hadn’t been seen since the civil war. During the 1970s and 80s death squads (lit. ‘esquadrones de la muerte’) operated against those considered to oppose state interests; 2015 brought with it the activity of groups that are called, clinically, ‘grupos de exterminio’ (lit. extermination groups). In the 70s and 80s, the death squads were made up of off-duty police officers and under-cover military. In 2015, no-one appeared to know who the extermination groups were made up of—of course it wasn’t something that people would or could talk about openly. In the 70s and 80s, they targeted political activists of the left or anyone considered to be opposing the government at the time. In 2015-16, they were not targeting gang members per se; rather, they targeted the youngsters who were acting as their eyes and ears in the communities—the ‘collaborators’ who would inform gang members that the police were on their way—those kids who had for one reason or another given in to the pressure to participate. With those ‘removed’ the police could enter the zone and arrest (or kill) the gang members directly. With this strategy, between 2015 and 2016 the gangs were driven from the communities (for the time-being at least) but at a tremendous cost. In one community, no-one had actually been killed by these extermination groups, but a list had been circulated in which people and their families had been threatened with death. In that community 21 entire families (out of at total of 135, so nearly 16%) had had to flee. The total number of people who had fled out of an approximate population of 500 was 110 (22% of the population); 47 of those (43%) were between the ages of 10 and 25 years. 14 of those had been participants in the Music for Hope project.

Another nearby community suffered much worse. No list was circulated there, yet between May 2015 and May 2016, 9 people aged between 14 and 25 were killed. The youngest was a girl aged 14. In that community of approximately 800, emigration rates of particularly young people are extremely high and have increased significantly. While I was there, in just one week of July 2016, three entire families left very suddenly due to death threats.

The tragedy of the years following 2013 is further highlighted by school attendance statistics. In 2014, 201 students started the year at the Instituto Nacional de Nueva Esperanza (one of two sixth-form colleges for the Bajo Lempa) yet only 131 completed the year (70 had dropped out = 35%). In 2015 only 119 started the year, yet still 30 did not complete it (25%). In 2016 numbers had fallen even further with only 97 pupils beginning the year yet 25 had dropped out by the time of my asking in July (26%). The head teacher of the institute told me that the majority of those students had left due to ‘extortion or threats’. It is a similar story with the local secondary school with numbers plummeting over the last three years.

In all this it’s hard to see where hope lies. But my next post will focus on exactly that. In those communities, the hope is in Music: Music for Hope.

Music for Hope: El Salvador, Bajo Lempa

Jorge Alexander Ramos d.26/05/2015

Jorge Alexander Ramos d.26/05/2015

On 26 May 2015, 15 year old Jorge Alexander Ramos was pulled from the school transport and murdered by maras as he returned home from school in Nueva Esperanza, El Salvador. Until that terrible moment, he had avoided becoming involved in the gang warfare that is spreading through El Salvador.

By highlighting the preventative work of Music for Hope, the clips below are dedicated to Jorge’s life and memory, and to his friends in the communities of Bajo Lempa who continue to light candles in the darkness.

In the videos we hear from Ñoto, a 21 year old participant in the project, as he describes how music changed his life. In the final clip there’s a twist that, in a tragic paradox ties Ñoto’s own story to that of Jorge Alexander’s. We also hear from the teachers of the Music for Hope project as they highlight the fundamental importance of the project to the youth of Bajo Lempa in a context of ever-increasing complexity and threat.

En 26 mayo 2015, bajaron al joven Jorge Alexander Ramos del transporte escolar mientras regresaba a casa desde su colegio en Nueva Esperanza, El Salvador, y lo asesinaron. Hasta aquel momento tan terrible se había evitado involucrarse en la violencia de los maras que se extiende a través del país.

Los videos arriba, en destacar el trabajo preventativo de Música para la Esperanza, se dedican a su vida y memoria, y también a sus amigos en las comunidades del Bajo Lempa quienes siguen encendiendo velas en la oscuridad.

Escuchamos de Ñoto, un integrante del proyecto de 21 años, y nos cuenta como la música cambió su vida. El último video da vuelco a su historia con una paradoja trágica que la vincula con la de Jorge Alexander. También los profesores del proyecto hablan de lo fundamental que es el proyecto para los jóvenes del Bajo Lempa en un contexto cada vez más complejo y amenazante.


Here’s the second part of the Music for Hope ‘Origins to the Present’ clip. In this clip we hear more from the music teachers of Bajo Lempa (El Salvador) talking about how the project evolved from one designed to manage post-war trauma to one that serves to give young people formation in a number of different ways and as a preventative measure to becoming immersed in a culture of violence through the gangs that are endemic in the region (
For more info see the other Music for Hope videos and/or:

Aquí tienen la segunda parte del ‘clip’ de Música para la Esperanza: Orígenes al presente en la cual los maestros del Bajo Lempa (El Salvador) hablan de como el proyecto evolucionó a uno dirigido a ayudar disolver las traumas de la guerra a uno que prioriza a la formación de los jóvenes en varios niveles y que actúa como una prevención a que se únan a la cultura de violencia que es tan endémico en la región por el problema de las Maras (
Véanse los otros videos de Música para la Esperanza, o también:


Here’s the second video clip from this Summer’s trip to the Music for Hope project in El Salvador. In this video you hear the music teachers from the Bajo Lempa talking a little more about the rationale of the project and you get to see the method in action as well as some of the results. Please do repost/share this to spread the news:

Aquí tienen el segundo videoclip de la visita que hize este verano al proyecto ‘Música para la Esperanza’  en El Salvador. Hablan los maestros un poco más del racional del proyecto y pueden ver un poco el método y algunos resultados. Si les gusta pues por favor compártenlo con los demás:


Here’s the first installment of this Summer’s video clips about the superb project ‘Music for Hope’ which teaches Music to the youth of Bajo Lempa, El Salvador, to give them an alternative focus to gang warfare. This clip is about the origins of the project:

More to follow.
In the meantime check out:

Aquí tienen el primer videoclip que hice este verano cuando visité al proyecto ‘Música para la Esperanza’. Es un proyecto fantástico que enseña música a los jovenes del Bajo Lempa, El Salvador para darles un enfoque distinto a la violencia pandillera:

Habrán más enseguida.
Entretanto, véanse:


Music for Hope

Música Para la Esperanza es un proyecto comunitario fundado en 1997 en el Bajo Lempa, la región costeña central. Fue fundado por una musicóloga llamada Katherine Rogers. Katherine visitó al Bajo Lempa en 1996 y, después de tocar con algunos jovenes en Nueva Esperanza quienes habían formado un grupo le “impresionó mucho el amor a la música y el fuerte sentido cultural y político que tenía la gente”.

Un año después, Katherine formó Música Para la Esperanza con “el reto de mantener los valores culturales de el Salvador y para dar una alternativa positiva a la violencia de las pandillas”. El objectivo inicial era enseñar a los jóvenes de las comunidades que se interesaba en la música para darles un enfoque diferente. Más de quinze años después el proyecto se continua en marcha con el liderazgo de la nueva generación de músicos salvadoreños, con el apoyo del Reino Unido y Catalunya. Ahora aquellos jóvenes salvadoreños son maestros de música en sus propias comunidades y, con el aumento de las redes pandilleras nacionales (los Maras) a través de la región, el reto de prevenir a la violencia a través de la formación y actividades culturales se ha vuelto más importante que nunca.

Para más información – pueden seguir los siguientes links:

Música Para la Esperanza

Música Para la Esperanza en Facebook

Y para otros pensamientos y informaciones (incluso fotos y videoclips) véanse la página: Cultures in Music.

Habrá más enseguida.

Music for Hope

Music for Hope is a community project originally set up in 1997 in Bajo Lempa, the south-central coastal region of El Salvador. Its founder was a musicologist named Katherine Rogers. Katherine visited the Bajo Lempa in 1996 and, after jamming with a group of young people in Nueva Esperanza who had formed a band, she “was struck by people’s love of music and their strong sense of cultural and political identity.”

A year later, Katherine formed Music for Hope with the “aim of maintaining Salvadorian cultural values and giving a positive alternative to gang warfare” and the initial objective was to teach interested youth of the local communities music to give them an alternative focus. Over fifteen years later the project is now entirely run by the next generation of Salvadoran musicians, with support from the UK and Catalunya. Those Salvadoran youths are now music teachers in these same communities and, with the recent expansion of national gang networks known as the Mara into the region, the goal of violence prevention through cultural formation and activity is as urgent and as important as ever.


2 thoughts on “Cultures in Music

  1. Pingback: Cultures in Music | culturecooks

  2. Pingback: Music for Hope, El Salvador, Bajo Lempa, 2015-2016 – part 1 | culturecooks

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