A model of social inclusion for the world?

In mid-May, a large delegation of El Sistema musicians and leaders travelled to Vienna to take part in the 27th session of the UN’s Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. A centrepiece event of their tour was a forum entitled “El Sistema – a model of social inclusion for the world,” hosted by the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, and accompanied by representatives of the UN and the Inter-American Development Bank.

This is interesting, because the IDB’s own research, published in 2016, estimated the poverty rate among El Sistema entrants as 16.7%, while the rate for the states in which they lived was 46.5%. In other words, the El Sistema children were three times less likely to be poor than all 6 to 14 year-olds residing in the same states. This was a bit of a bombshell if social inclusion was the overriding aim.

Since it is El Sistema’s major funder, the IDB tried to put this news nicely. Nevertheless, it stated that this finding “highlights the challenges of targeting interventions towards vulnerable groups of children in the context of a voluntary social program.” The point about a systemic failure of social inclusion is implicit but clear.

I wonder how the IDB has moved from this troublesome statistic and negative conclusion to its public support for the hyperbolic claim that El Sistema constitutes “a model of social inclusion for the world.”


By coincidence, someone recently re-circulated an article from a couple of years ago about the lack of female orchestral conductors in Venezuela. The author noted that El Sistema’s website listed 26 conductors trained by the program, none of them women. Furthermore, the country’s 30 professional orchestras – almost all of them run by El Sistema or created by the professionalization of El Sistema youth orchestras – were all conducted by men.

This article built on the point made in my book a couple of years before:

The vast majority of the project’s leaders have been men: Abreu, Igor Lanz, Eduardo Méndez, Valdemar Rodríguez, Pedro Álvarez, Víctor Rojas, the list goes on. The same is true for conductors: Gustavo Dudamel, his forgotten predecessor Gustavo Medina, and his possible successors Diego Matheuz and Christian Vásquez. The directors of the Latin American Academies for orchestral instruments are almost all men. Musicians talk about Abreu’s inner circle of students— those who receive individual conducting lessons and concentrated, personalized attention—as a male group. A website by Borzacchini and Sistema sponsor Bancaribe proclaims that the program “has formed an entire generation of orchestra conductors who are rising stars on international stages and also at home in Venezuela.” It lists thirty-one up-and-coming conducting talents—not a single one of them female.

Turning to El Sistema’s two elite orchestras, the older “A” section of the SBYO is 69 percent male and 31 percent female, and the younger “B” section is 78 percent male and 22 percent female, with all the principals of the “B” orchestra except the flute being male.

Gisela Kozak Rovero recently summed the point up nicely in describing El Sistema as “a sort of masculine brotherhood of Knights Templar of classical music.”

It is curious that an organization with such an obvious glass ceiling for women should now be celebrated as a model of social inclusion for the world.

As ever, I’m intrigued by how these eulogistic narratives of El Sistema take flight, untethered by critical thinking or factual accuracy. And as events in Vienna demonstrated, prestigious funders and higher education institutions, which one might expect to fact-check and rein in propagandistic excesses, are part of the problem.