Scam, Voodoo, or The Future of Music? The El Sistema Debate

El Sistema, the Venezuelan youth orchestra program spearheaded by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, has become something of a sacred cow in the UK and North America as its fame has grown over the last five years. After a lengthy period of widespread and uncritical embrace that has at times bordered on the delirious, genuine debate finally kicked off in the pages of Classical Music. In the blue corner: a conservative music critic who has only a superficial acquaintance with El Sistema but a feel for some key issues and, it seems, an unparalleled ability to provoke. In the red corner: a clutch of liberal Sistema supporters who know a lot more about the program but are almost all, to a greater or lesser degree, employees or outriders of El Sistema or its offshoots and therefore heavily invested in its success. The result is that impartiality is thin on the ground, and that what may appear at first glance to be an informed debate is riddled with inaccuracies and myths.

The catalyst for the debate was music journalist Igor Toronyi-Lalic, who finally burst the Sistema bubble with two critical articles published in late June, riling the program’s supporters by characterizing them as “propagandists” and the project itself as a “scam” (“Sceptic’s Sistema,” Classical Music, 30 June 2012). He didn’t mince his words, declaring “I’m not a supporter of El Sistema for the same reason that I’m not a supporter of Voodoo.” Toronyi-Lalic’s principal charge was that evidence for El Sistema’s widely-touted positive effects was flimsy. The rebuttals and refutations came in thick and fast. “Has he read the independent reports from the Inter-American Development Bank about the collective benefits of the Venezuelan programme?” asked Reynaldo Trombetta, Director of Communications at the English Sistema program In Harmony (“Benefits of El Sistema,” Classical Music, 28 July 2012), referring to a 2007 study that concluded that every $1 invested in El Sistema brought a benefit of $1.68 for Venezuela. It was on this basis that the IDB awarded a $150 million loan to the project, so the study certainly had a big impact, but I can’t help wondering if Trombetta himself has read the actual report (as opposed to the IDB’s subsequent loan proposal), or if Sistema experts have followed the ensuing developments as closely as they might. The methodological flaws of the 2007 study are not hard to spot, and after private murmurings about its inadequacies, the IDB itself has now effectively disowned the report by launching a $1 million evaluation which will provide, they say, “the first rigorous evidence of the results of the program” when it is published at the end of 2013. They go further still, admitting that the earlier cost-benefit analysis “was the result of various suppositions and not of a rigorous measurement of the impact of El Sistema on the beneficiaries of the program.”

Marshall Marcus, former Head of Music at the Southbank Centre and now a global Sistema activist, chose to address the thorny question of evidence by compiling an extremely long list of people who are convinced that El Sistema works. Impressive though it may be, this is no more proof of the program’s effectiveness than a list of believers is evidence of the existence of God.

The lack of evidence for its effects lay behind Toronyi-Lalic’s likening of El Sistema to voodoo, much to the displeasure of its supporters. “The transformational power of El Sistema rests, in fact, on that purely musical case,” responded Tricia Tunstall, author of Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music. “It is because of music’s ‘spiritual wealth,’ Maestro Abreu has said, that music can ‘overcome material poverty’. There is no voodoo here” (“Defending Sistema,” Classical Music, 14 July 2012). I don’t know about voodoo, but the idea that spiritual wealth can overcome material poverty, and the unquestioning reverence for the person who proclaims it, seems to have a distinctly esoteric ring to me.

Either way, the simple truth is that, despite all the beliefs, esoteric or otherwise, there is no robust evidence that the Venezuelan Sistema works, as even its major funder, the IDB, admits. What is more, it seems clear there will be none until the current evaluation is completed late next year. This does not mean, of course, that El Sistema doesn’t work, but rather that claims of its success are founded on other grounds – primarily, on centuries-old beliefs about the uplifting power of high art and the rather more modern merits of a sustained PR campaign.

Toronyi-Lalic went so far as to suggest that even if evidence did exist, it might be somewhat meaningless, since the fact that intensive investment in this program produced better results than no investment in anything would do nothing to show that El Sistema was a particularly effective way of achieving its social goals. Indeed, without conducting a rigorous trial involving not just El Sistema but also another educational program based on a different art form – traditional music, say, or theatre – it would be impossible to know whether El Sistema was a better investment than alternative forms of arts education, or simply better than nothing.

Questioning the idea that classical music is better for people, and especially for the poor, than other kinds of music, Toronyi-Lalic was disturbed by the suspicion that “art is being used to civilise the lower orders.” Despite protestations to the contrary from the program’s defenders, this is precisely what El Sistema believes and is trying to do, as is clear from its echoing of early nineteenth-century ideas about music and the salvation of the lower classes.

Music education was promoted among the poor in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century as part of a drive for moral and religious improvement. George Hogarth wrote in his Musical History (1835): “Wherever the working classes are taught to prefer the pleasures of the intellect, and even of taste, to the gratification of sense, a great and favourable change takes place in their character and manners.” Evoking Handel and Haydn, he goes on: “Sentiments are awakened that make them love their families and their homes; their wages are not squandered in intemperance; and they become happier as well as better.” In Germany, Hans Georg Nägeli, in his 1812 elementary singing method, imagined an ideal future society as “the age of music,” which “begins only where higher art is practiced not just by representatives – where higher art has become the common possession of the people. Take hosts of people; take them by the hundreds, the thousands; try to bring them into human interaction, and interaction in which every individual receives and circulates enlightenment.”

Nearly two centuries later, El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu 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.” He went on, “when he has three years of musical education behind him, he is playing Mozart, Haydn, he watches an opera: this child no longer accepts his poverty, he aspires to leave it behind and ends up defeating it.” Echoing Nägeli, he claims that, thanks to El Sistema, art is “no longer a monopoly of elites” but rather “a right for all the people.”

Two hundred years after Nägeli, we find the same ideology of moral, spiritual, and economic improvement of the poor through European high art. El Sistema’s rhetoric is thus far from new. It is worth noting that historian David Gramit underlines how nineteenth-century educational reform did not challenge the social and economic order but rather reaffirmed it. He contrasts Nägeli’s utopian language with a pedagogy that may be summed up as “coercion, manipulation, and breaking down.” Howard Smither concurs in his history of the oratorio, arguing that a key motivation behind the promotion of music education to the poor was the political protection of the upper and wealthy middle classes. Music was seen as a way of keeping the workers out of taverns, increasing their productivity and decreasing their opportunities to discuss revolutionary ideas. For all the contemporary talk of a “revolutionary social project” and “music as social action,” programs like El Sistema have historically been reactionary.

Such programs often entail the marginalization of local popular culture. Trombetta rebuffed such concerns: “In each of the 285 ‘núcleos’ in Venezuela there is at least one Venezuelan folk music ensemble, and every child who is a part of El Sistema learns a Venezuelan folk instrument.” This statement may be widely believed and repeated by Sistema fans, but it is a myth. I observed a number of núcleos and studied one major one in depth; the presence of Venezuelan folk music ranged from minimal to non-existent, and few students had had any instruction in it. Where students learned cuatro (a small guitar), it was treated in the same way as the recorder in most UK schools: a starter instrument soon to be given up in favour of a “real” (i.e. orchestral) instrument. Staff in some schools also reported institutional resistance to the introduction of cuatro lessons, and when scholarships were introduced, they were only available for players of orchestral instruments. Whether or not Venezuelan instruments are actually in evidence, the hierarchy of cultural value is abundantly clear – as it is in Abreu’s words about Mozart and Haydn, with not a mention of Simón Díaz or Reynaldo Armas.

At times, this hierarchization becomes so acute that Abreu seems to forget that anything other than classical music exists, claiming, for example, that “for me, the most important priority was to give access to music to poor people” – as if poor people did not have music until El Sistema arrived. “I’ve sought to take music, which is usually a luxury item, and turn it into cultural patrimony accessible to all,” says Abreu, overlooking his country’s huge quantity and diversity of traditional and popular music.

One has to try very hard not to see El Sistema’s deep-seated belief in the superiority of classical music, but there seems to be no shortage of people willing to do so. “Not one single person involved in the creation of El Sistema, not even José Antonio Abreu, thinks that classical music is ‘better’ for the kids,” claims Alberto Portugheis, another who weighed into the debate (“Benefits of El Sistema,” Classical Music, 28 July 2012). He clearly did not read Candace Allen’s comment that Abreu saw salsa music as “emblematic of his country’s ills of chaos, crime, and addiction,” and he apparently missed the 60 Minutes documentary in which a Caracas núcleo director encapsulated El Sistema’s philosophy: “What they have at home on the radio is popular music all the time. Their father, who drinks every day, gets drunk with that music. So you have to give them something different. And when they sit in one of these chairs in the orchestra, they think they’re in another country, in another planet, and they start changing.”

El Sistema now has a handful of traditional and popular ensembles – and it also has some 400 classical orchestras. It has recently announced a new traditional music initiative called Alma Llanera – after 37 years of focusing almost exclusively on classical music. El Sistema shows occasional, limited signs of activity with regard to traditional music, but it would be absurd to claim that it does not regard classical music as a better tool for moral and spiritual improvement.

Tunstall rebuffs Toronyi-Lalic’s accusation of cultural colonialism by arguing somewhat bizarrely that Abreu formed part of “an indigenous group demanding high art as their birthright.” Abreu is in fact a member of the Venezuelan social elite and the grandson of Italian immigrants whose house, a shrine to Dante, Shakespeare and Verdi, made a big impression on him. It is surely no coincidence that, according to El Sistema’s official history, his favourite composers are all European. It is facile to dismiss the question of cultural colonialism on the grounds that Abreu is Venezuelan: Eurocentrism has been a notable feature of Latin American elites ever since independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, and Abreu’s musical tastes and ideology of music education reveal his adherence to this venerable tradition. He is steeped in European cultural and educational assumptions and has spent the last thirty-seven years spreading them across Venezuela, with an ever greater focus on “civilizing” the poor just like his nineteenth-century predecessors in Europe – a conservative program that only looks radical to liberal outsiders because it is taking place in Venezuela and aimed at poor and often non-white children.

Such a project is not a novelty in South America either: it carries echoes of the Spanish (musical) conquest nearly five centuries ago, when missionaries and churchmen fanned out across the continent and began to found schools that taught music as a core subject. Their aim was twofold: to stock the churches with local musicians, and to instill in the indigenous population what the Spaniards called policía – a complex term that encompassed order, Christianity, and civilization. For nearly half a millennium, then, social elites in Latin America have been trying to “civilize” or “improve” poor and/or darker-skinned children through education in European(-style) music, while also ensuring that local institutions are filled by their favourite music.

Whereas in the colonial period the focus of attention was church music, today it is the symphony orchestra. Yet in all the excitement about the orchestra as “a means of social organization” and “a school of social life,” the often unpalatable realities of these ensembles – in Venezuela just as much as elsewhere – are all too often ignored. Toronyi-Lalic’s questioning of the idea that “the act of being in an orchestra is always beneficial” is supported by numerous academic studies of professional orchestras that reveal a high rate of physical and psychological problems among members and widespread dissatisfaction with this career path. Tunstall, like most El Sistema defenders, insists that “El Sistema’s goal has never been to create professional musicians,” a strange claim given that it began in a conservatoire (the Juan José Landaeta), one of its initial guiding premises was precisely to stock Venezuelan orchestras with Venezuelan musicians, and today a significant proportion of the students are already being paid to play in an orchestra and are striving towards joining the top ensembles like the (professional) Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. Given the way that the twin carrots of pay and the elite orchestras are dangled in front of students to motivate them, it makes about as much sense to claim that El Sistema is not aiming to create professional musicians as to argue that Manchester United’s academy is not aiming to create professional footballers.

Sistema supporters have failed, according to Toronyi-Lalic, to ask penetrating questions about the politics of El Sistema: the relationship between Abreu and the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chávez, or the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra’s famous coloured jackets. Responses underlined his point, revealing patchy understanding of the political realities in question. Tunstall replied: “Throughout the Sistema’s 35-year history he [Abreu] has been careful to establish good relations with each of the seven successive regimes in power, ranging from extreme right to extreme left, while scrupulously avoiding too close an identification with any one regime. He continues to do so. And those ‘colours of the state’ orchestra members sometimes wear? They have been the colours of the state since 1810. They are not emblematic of Hugo Chávez; they signify Venezuela.” One wonders how Abreu avoided too close an identification with the second government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, considering that he was minister of culture at the time. As for the colours: the jacket displays eight stars, the eighth of them added to the national flag in 2006 – by Hugo Chávez.

Marcus takes a similar line on politics, suggesting “it’s probably the case, ceteris paribus, that Abreu and Dudamel would prefer to just stay out of politics altogether.” This seems somewhat unlikely, given that Abreu became closely involved in politics in his early twenties while at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello and, after hobnobbing with a number of prominent political figures, spent five years as a deputy in parliament in the 1960s, in addition to his five years as minister of culture. The complex relationship between Abreu and Chávez, two intensely political animals from opposite sides of the political spectrum, is something that has barely begun to be explored in the English-speaking world.

Finally, Toronyi-Lalic turned his fire on other journalists, whom he accused of failing to ask “even the most basic questions of the enterprise. The left-wing press has delivered the kind of unthinking whitewashing of El Sistema that is usually reserved for the Daily Mail’s treatment of the Queen Mum.” Perhaps whitewashing is too strong, but there is no question that, with one or two exceptions, critical analysis has been limited in the UK press. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Toronyi-Lalic’s arguments, he sparked off a public debate – and that can only be a good thing for those who truly want to get to the bottom of El Sistema and discover whether it is a scam, voodoo, or, as Sir Simon Rattle believes, “the future of music.”

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