Bolivian coca grower Mariel Chura (C with glasses), 21, plays the viola during a presentation of the Youth Symphonic Orchestra of Chulumani, some 120 km north of La Paz, on November 21, 2018. (AFP/Aizar Raldes)
When Mariel Chura joined a youth orchestra at age 14, she did not even know what a viola was.
Seven years later, she loves the instrument, which has offered her an escape from the hardships of everyday life in Bolivia's biggest coca-producing area.
The Chulumani Youth Symphony Orchestra has helped teens avoid the usual pitfalls plaguing the region: drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and family drama, according to the group's director and conductor Erik Castro.
Instead, they learn the discipline of classical music, forge lasting friendships and dream of a future career in the arts.
Bright-eyed and slender, Chura grew up picking coca leaves on her parents' land in the Cocayapu region, near Chulumani in the Yungas valley, about 120 kilometers east of the capital La Paz.
When she received visitors on a suffocatingly hot and humid day, she took out her instrument and filled the family home with music, as her mother Lidia turned the pages of her sheet music.
"I feel calm (playing the viola). It's like you forget everything -- you're focused on playing, you forget your problems," Chura said.
A fan of German Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann -- but also Vivaldi, Mozart and Bach -- Chura says she dreams of playing in a symphony orchestra like Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, founded in the 1970s by Jose Antonio Abreu, who developed the country's El Sistema music education program.
She is not alone -- many of the 80 or so children and young adults in the Chulumani Symphony hope their love of music can turn into a lifelong occupation.
Chura's foray into music wasn't easy.
She was picked on by classmates. The boys in the group were the targets of homophobic slurs for playing in the orchestra.
At age 18, Chura used her income from the coca fields to buy her own her viola for $115 - a significant amount of money for her.
Now, she is studying engineering at the Higher University of San Andres in La Paz, where she lives during the week. On weekends, she goes home to teach viola to two little boys and continue rehearsing with her fellow orchestra members.
- Orchestra is a 'sanctuary' -
The Chulumani Symphony welcomes children from ages four to 22 who are hoping to learn about music and invest in their futures.
"The orchestra has become like a sanctuary, where kids come and feel like they're free from those problems" that usually mark adolescence, Castro told AFP.
Like other Bolivian kids, these young musicians "have a lot of social problems (around them). These days, it's not just drugs and alcohol; instead, there's violence, the issue of family abandonment, lack of affection," he said.
"We've been a kind of prevention program" against drug and alcohol use by default, said Castro, who has become a role model for his music students.
The orchestra was founded in 2011 with a combination of support from the city of Chulumani and private organizations.
Since then, several students have been awarded scholarships to universities at home and abroad, as well as to conservatories in Peru and Costa Rica, Castro says.
The conductor agreed with Chura that they need to combat the stigma about young boys playing in the orchestra, and the bullying they are suffering, as it resulted in fewer young boys wanting to join.
- From Tchaikovsky to 'Jaws' -
After years of practice, the Chulumani Symphony has begun to collaborate with other Bolivian youth orchestras, as well as ones in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay.
In November, the town hosted an "International Youth Summit for Music and Life," in which hundreds of young people from the four countries put on a concert for more than 1,000 spectators.
The musicians entertained the crowd with pieces from Strauss, Tchaikovsky and French composer Georges Bizet.
They also played bits of movie soundtracks from living US legend John Williams -- including from Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
"When music comes into your life, it changes you," said 19-year-old violinist Lourdes Sarabia during a break in the more-than-two-hour program.
Younger boys Aldo, 11, and Johsset Salvador, 10, both skilled on the violin, echoed the feelings of their older fellow musicians.
"It makes me happy," Aldo said, while Johsset said he too found "lots of joy, lots of happiness, playing with other orchestras."
The orchestra is hoping to travel abroad to bring Bolivian music to other countries.
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