A British academic has criticised Venezuela’s El Sistema youth orchestra system as a “model of tyranny”, provoking a response from a range of UK and Venezuelan music figures over the nature of the world famous program.
El Sistema, the internationally celebrated programme in Venezuela that aims to lift young people from poverty and into orchestras, has been criticised by a British academic as a “model of tyranny” and raised questions about its recent expansion to the UK.
El Sistema was set up almost forty years ago by José Antonio Abreu, a musician, economist and former cabinet minister, as a social programme to bring Venezuela’s disadvantaged youth off the streets and into musical ensembles to enrich their lives and promote social mobility.
Since 1975, when it began with 11 musicians in a garage in Caracas, it has placed more than two million children into orchestras and has spawned branches in a dozen plus countries, including Sistema England, which is chaired by Julian Lloyd Webber.
However, writing in the Guardian, Geoffrey Baker, a music lecturer at Royal Holloway University who has just written a book on El Sistema, to be published by Oxford University Press, claimed that far from being the “beacon of social justice” as it is portrayed all over the world, in Venezuela it is viewed as “a cult, a mafia and a corporation”.
Based on research he conducted in Venezuela, Baker criticised the organisation for the “opacity of its financial affairs” and its lack of rigorous evaluation to quantify its claims of “miraculous social transformation”.
“I found many Sistema musicians unconvinced by claims that the project was aimed at Venezuela’s most vulnerable children,” he wrote.
“Pointing to a lack of mechanisms for consistently targeting this demographic, they suggested most musicians come from the middle levels of society.”
Quoting musicians in one El Sistema ensemble, Baker also said the orchestras were “a model of absolute tyranny … part of a drive for moral improvement and high profits” and said his findings raised “serious questions about the much-heralded efforts to transplant it to the UK”.
However, Reynaldo Trombetta, a Venezuelan musician and writer who has worked with El Sistema, in his home country and then assisting Lloyd-Webber, set up the programme in the UK, rejected Baker’s allegations.
He said: “I’m not really sure who Mr Baker spoke to and I have my doubts about the reach of his research. I have to wonder if he spoke to any of the parents of the kids from the barrios, the slums, who are desperate to get their kids into El Sistema because for them the alternative is these kids getting involved in drugs or crime. You would have to ask them if they think El Sistema is a mafia or a tyranny. More than two million kids have been involved and we still see huge queues, all the time, of parents desperate to get their children into one of the 300 nucleos [community music schools]. Most of the people involved are not aspiring to be musicians, they are just in a country where you don’t learn much about excellence, you don’t learn much about teamwork, you don’t really learn what you can achieve when you work hard and El Sistema is absolutely still a beacon of light benefitting a lot of people, even in things like educational literacy and maths skills .”
“All I can say is that it has worked in Venezuela and we’ve seen many kids go on to be very successful. It is a model that most parents and kids involved appreciate – I suspect that Mr Baker did not speak to very many of them.”
Trombetta also cited a 2007 study into El Sistema, published in the 2010 book Venezuela: The Miracle of Music by Chefi Borzacchini, which showed that among 180 families from 15 nucleos in Caracas, Bolivar, Lara, Merida, Miranda, Tachira, Sucre and Zulia, 11% were middle class, 36% came from poverty and 53% came from extreme poverty.
He added: “Are there things to be critical about? Of course. I don’t think El Sistema has done as much research as it should have into the social effects of the programme. They don’t have a strong body of research documenting what they’ve been doing over the past forty years and I think that’s an area that could be improved, so we can draw accurate rather than speculative conclusions about El Sistema.”
Marshall Marcus, former head of music at the Southbank centre and now the chair of Sistema Europe, also cast doubt on Baker’s allegations.
“My experience over many years is that El Sistema certainly is mainly involved with children and young people from economically challenged circumstances,” he said. If it is thought by someone that El Sistema has become more skewed towards middle class students rather than helping those living in poverty then I would be interested to see any figures that show that. I have not seen any to date.
“I think that El Sistema in Venezuela has provided a route to social development for huge numbers of Venezuelan children and young people. I have personally seen this development in certain Venezuelans over a period of years with my own eyes.”
Marshall did echo Trombetta’s call for a more thorough enquiry into El Sistema’s social reach and effectiveness. “I think the call for high quality research and evaluation of El Sistema is a good one, and would support any calls for such,” he said. “The more we find out about what the actual social development results are from taking part in El Sistema’s method, the better placed we are.”
Celebrated Argentinian pianist Alberto Portugheis, who was responsible for bringing El Sistema over to play in Britain for the first time almost a decade ago added: “El Sistema has had a fantastic effect on education in general in Venezuela. But you cannot expect a musical education to make all the problems of poverty in the country disappear.”
El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu recently claimed in a television interview: “El Sistema breaks the vicious circle [of poverty] because a child with a violin starts to become spiritually rich: the CD he listens to, the book he reads, he sees words in German, the music opens doors to intellectual knowledge and then everything begins.” Thanks to El Sistema, he added, art is “no longer a monopoly of elites” but rather “a right for all the people”.
Yet while Abreu, 75, often is lauded as a visionary, Baker said he was motivated by political ambition rather than promoting social mobility and said Abreu’s obsession with discipline had led El Sistema’s leading ensemble to be dubbed the ‘Venezuelan Slave Orchestra’.
However Portugheis said that Baker was wrong to condemn Abreu’s political contacts, which should be celebrated as an asset for the programme’s survival. “Abreu is a musician but he is also a former politician” he said. “He wanted to help the poor people of Venezuela while also helping our government. So it has been a two-way thing for him, and there is nothing wrong with that. He has used his political contacts to ensure the government continues to support this amazing project and he is an extraordinary man who transformed education for young people in the country.”
Trombetta also said the allegations were unfounded, adding: “Those claims are frankly disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of kids who work so hard and invest so much time in becoming great musicians. To imply they do it, not out of choice or their own hard work, but because of a slave-driving mentality undermines their achievements. This is not an accurate picture of El Sistema.”
Baker is not the first to level criticism at the orchestra. In a piece titled Sceptic’s Sistema in June 2012 in Classical Music magazine, Igor Toronyi-Lalic, co-director of the London Contemporary Music Festival and an arts editor for the Spectator, said “I’m not a supporter of El Sistema for the same reason that I’m not a supporter of Voodoo”, adding that he was disturbed by the suspicion that “art is being used to civilise the lower orders”.
In 2012, the orchestra movement, which is entirely state funded, also came under scrutiny for its “unhealthy relationship” with President Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013.