Gabriel Coddou

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1996
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Gabriel Coddou's work was prepared when Gabriel Coddou was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.


In indigenous communities in southern Chile, Gabriel Coddou is organizing children's choral groups that present songs in their native language's in festivals and concerts throughout the country. In addition to developing the musical talents of their participants, the choral groups are playing important roles in preserving languages and cultures at risk of extinction, building the self-esteem and confidence of the children and their families, reinforcing their commitments to education, reactivating participation in community endeavors and combating discrimination by exposing the broader society to the cultures and talents of indigenous people.

The New Idea

The essence of the idea that Gabriel Coddou is implementing in southern Chile is that children's choral groups are a remarkably versatile and effective instrument for addressing the many ills that afflict indigenous communities throughout the Andean region. The choral groups learn songs in their native languages and perform them in local festivals, on television and in concerts and other gatherings throughout the country. Their activities are nurtured and sustained by a support system that is contributing in important ways to the preservation of indigenous languages, encouraging citizens to join forces in a wide variety of community endeavors and helping unite communities that have been both isolated and badly divided for many years.The opportunity to sing in the choral groups and to travel and perform throughout Chile offers children from the poorest segments of rural Chilean society opportunities to broaden their horizons through exposure to new experiences. It also gives them pride of accomplishment and strengthens their desire and interest in continuing their education. In addition, the choral groups are "living advertisements" of the benefits of cultural diversity and unusually effective vehicles for transmitting other important and timely social messages.

The Problem

In the Andean region of Latin America, there are more than 500 different indigenous cultures and languages. In parts of the region, including Bolivia, indigenous people make up the majority of the population. In Chile, in marked contrast, indigenous communities are widely dispersed throughout the country and constitute only a small percentage of the population. But throughout the region, among the dominant Spanish-speaking groups, there is very little recognition of the diversity and richness of indigenous cultures.Centuries of colonization and the imposition of Western political structures and values have resulted in the disappearance of many of the traditional cultural practices of indigenous groups. They have also left a worrisome void in citizen participation in community activities. From today's perspective, there is an urgent need for new social structures to replace those that have been destroyed by poverty, domination and discrimination. There is also good reason to search for new ways to bring the languages and cultures of the region's diverse indigenous groups to the attention of the broader public.In Chile, there are several groups of indigenous people who have long endured severe discrimination and whose cultures and languages are threatened with annihilation by the dominant society. In the isolated rural areas of the archipelago of Chiloé in the south of Chile, for example, the Huilliche people have lost much of their cultural heritage, and their language has all but disappeared. For these descendants of the first inhabitants of the southernmost part of the area, mounting poverty and years of isolation, oppression and discriminatory treatment have resulted in an increasingly evident and socially destructive loss of self-esteem.As traditional social structures are increasingly threatened, so to the ecosystems in rural indigenous communities are rapidly being destroyed by the unsustainable extraction of natural resources, often by international corporations. In Chiloé, land that once belonged to the Huilliche and other indigenous people is now either owned by the State or by private land owners, and the ability of indigenous groups to organize and plan for the sustainable development of the areas in which they live is severely impeded by the disappearance of their traditional social structures and the absence of alternative vehicles for coordinating efforts to protect their environment.

The Strategy

The basic structure and strategies of Gabriel's initiative are quite straightforward. Working with teachers in public schools in several communities, he is organizing choral groups of children, building a repertory of choral music in one of Chile's indigenous languages, publishing songbooks to encourage the relearning of that language, producing concerts and other public presentations and building support groups of parents and other community members to assist the choral groups. He is also developing and implementing a strategy to spread the Chiloé experience to other communities and schools throughout the Andean region. In close collaboration with language and multiple-subject teachers in several schools in Chiloé and its vicinity, Gabriel is developing a substantial and varied array of songs in the Huilliche language. Unfortunately, traditional songs in that language have already been lost, but Gabriel and his associates are translating lyrics from the universal choral repertory into Huilliche and creating new lyrics, both in Huilluche and Spanish. Gabriel is also directly engaged in the formation of new choral groups in the schools, helping them learn the music, using the lyrics in Huilliche to develop their skills in that language, offering additional musical training to children with special aptitude, and encouraging them to write their own songs.Building on that experience, Gabriel is producing and publishing song books in both Huilliche and Spanish to be used in the relearning of the Huilliche language in other public and private schools in the region. He also organizes frequent concerts and performances, in Chiloé and further afield, which deliver their musical messages and are influencing a growing number of communities through example.In each of the communities in which he is working, Gabriel has made special efforts to develop active support groups for the choirs. These groups coordinate trips to music festivals and performances on television and radio, in other schools and in various musical events throughout the country. The support groups also help the children secure the funding required for those purposes, and they are playing an increasingly active role in reuniting communities that have long been divided and stimulating community action in other fields.The children's choruses and support group members in the Chiloé region have become especially active in the environmental protection field. The choral groups have performed at a number of events that have been organized to provide information and stimulate community action in that field, and because the children were singing at those events, parents and other community members have attended and been exposed to information that they would not otherwise have received. The children themselves have been moved to plant forests of native species around their schools and elsewhere in their communities, and their parents and sponsors have become similarly engaged in the conservation cause. On a recent occasion, when a foreign lumber firm appeared on the scene and began to extract timber in an environmentally irresponsible way, a group of individuals that had worked together in a support group for a children's chorus quickly assembled and succeeded in bringing the destructive extraction operation to a halt.Gabriel is also busily engaged in spreading his choral group concept to other indigenous communities and schools in Chile and elsewhere in the Andean region. He has received funding from the Chilean Education Ministry's Development Fund for Art and Culture for three initiatives in schools in the Chiloé region, and he has developed a curriculum for teaching teachers who want to adopt his model and to use and adapt the books of songs that he has already produced. Gabriel is in close and continuing contact with individuals and groups throughout Chile, and in Argentina as well, who are interested in replicating his model, and he is networking with music students in Chile's major universities who are eager to assist in that process.

The Person

Gabriel grew up in the Temuco area in southern Chile. He encountered indigenous people at an early age, and his grandfather served as a judge for the Mapuche people. His family had strong musical interest, and he grew up in a household surrounded by music that they performed.During the sixteen years that he has lived in Chiloé, he has traveled widely in the region. With the dual intent of exposing people in that relatively isolated part of the country to a variety of musical experiences and encouraging fragmented rural communities to come together for cultural events, he and his family have presented numerous public concerts of classical music throughout the region.In the course of his travels in Chiloé and neighboring areas, Gabriel was delighted to discover impressive musical and literary talent among the Huilliche people and other indigenous groups. He was touched by their beautiful voices and their facility in learning music, and he was disturbed by the fact that those talents were not being developed. He also noticed that young people who, in spite of their difficult surroundings, had been enthusiastic learners and eager to succeed as children all to often lost their enthusiasm and drive upon reaching adolescence. Reflecting on that unsettling phenomenon, and drawing on his experience in community organizing through cultural events and his lifelong exposure to indigenous people, Gabriel formed the idea of creating children's choral groups as a means of dispelling the despondency that he had detected and rekindling hope, pride and social participation in the region's indigenous communities.