Bruno Campo and the Cult of the Maestro (part 1)

The El Sistema conductor Bruno Campo has been accused of rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment of youth orchestra musicians after a journalistic investigation in his native Guatemala. The report cites seven alleged victims (four named, three anonymous), the youngest aged 12 at the time. A follow-up radio program saw the report’s author joined by three other journalists and two alleged victims, who repeated their accusations on air. The author claimed that five more alleged victims had come forward since the publication of the article, bringing the total number of accusers to twelve.

Campo has denied the accusations, both in the original article and in a subsequent statement, claiming that the report is a “political hit-piece.”

According to Campo, he was a protégé of El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, spent a stint playing with the Venezuelan National Children’s Orchestra (precursor of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra), and set up El Sistema Guatemala under Abreu’s direct mentorship.

After leaving Guatemala abruptly in 2012, Campo became a central figure in Sistema Europe. In 2013, he co-founded the Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra, and he subsequently participated in several of its annual summer camps. He has also been closely involved with a number of European Sistema-inspired projects, including in Austria, Switzerland, and Denmark. He was the moderator at a major El Sistema event in Graz last year, appearing alongside leaders from Venezuela and Sistema Europe.

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The journalistic investigation centres on the accusations of sexual assault and harassment. It’s essential to take such allegations very seriously, and the alacrity with which organizations such as Sistema Europe, Sistema England, and the Global Leaders Program have distanced themselves from Campo (via public statements or removing him from their website) suggests that they are doing precisely that; but at present the allegations are unproven. They ought to be tested by a thorough official investigation, though with Campo in Europe and the accusers in Guatemala, a country where Campo is politically well connected and which is ranked 144 out of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, I am not holding my breath. Here, I am interested in the wider context of the Sistema-inspired program described in the investigation, and its connection to the allegations at hand.

The journalist undertook some two-dozen interviews with musicians, teachers, and former students, a number of them identified by name, and paints a highly unflattering portrait of this particular corner of the Sistema empire. I spoke to a trusted source in Guatemala who knows most of the key players in this story as well as the music school at its centre; he described the overall picture as accurate. The French music journalist Vincent Agrech spoke independently to former students; they too verified the account of the school.

At the heart of the story lies Campo’s personality. Even one of his hand-picked character witnesses reported:

“He was very bad natured and terribly immature. He wanted to change the world and it frustrated him that people didn’t understand his mission. So he would get angry, and on three occasions I saw him throw things at orchestra members. Once a boy came in early and [Campo] threw a shoe at him.”

Isabel Ciudad Real, a leading figure in the music education field in Guatemala who initially collaborated with Campo before changing her mind, stated:

“He became obsessed when he saw the possibility of growth. He was a good leader, but he started to want to reach the goal without going through a process, and he began to treat people badly.”

Campo’s ambition comes across clearly. Fernando Archila, director of the Municipal Choir, said:

“His objective was to have an orchestra so that he could show off.”

The notion of the young musicians as pawns in adult games is even more evident in the accusation that Campo and his superiors exploited the orchestra for political ends. According to the journalist:

“In exchange for absolute power in the Municipal Music School and the System of Orchestras, Bruno Campo repaid the Unionist Municipality with concerts by children and young people. And there was an element of exploitation. For the elections of 2007 and 2011, they would do up to three “barrio” concerts a week during months of campaigning. Without compensation. 75 children and young people from impoverished areas of Guatemala City, playing in white and green Municipality sweaters every two or three days. The cellist Rossana Paz, an adolescent at the time, recalls that the concerts took place with the banners of the Unionist Party and fireworks at the end.

To the outside world, the Municipality and unionism shone, thanks to the social project of music for youth.”

(Those who believe that Sistema is progressive may be interested to know that the Unionist Party, which Campo promoted via his Sistema project, is “extremely conservative.”)

Archila, the choir director, noted: “The problem is that they gave absolute control to one person – Bruno. No one oversaw him or questioned his methods.” According to Julio Julián, a Sistema choir teacher, Campo turned the music school into a dictatorship, humiliating the teachers and firing anyone who resisted. Paz, a former student, said:

“Bruno taught us to shut up. We would see how things turned out badly for those who spoke up or didn’t pay attention to him. He would kick them out violently. He would humiliate them, using bad language.”

Campo managed to get away with such behaviour for years because he was placed on a pedestal and exercised extraordinary power over the students’ musical lives. As one former student said:

“Imagine, he directed the whole System of Orchestras in Guatemala, he created it. I saw him as an idol. He had that thing, he enabled you to feel the music. I was dying to be in that orchestra.”

One alleged victim, Azucena Salinas, described how the music school was her life, so she didn’t want to leave, despite everything that went on. She eventually told her mother, but she also

“begged her not to remove her from the music school. The orchestra and the violin were her whole world. She dreamt of a professional career in music and she had made so much progress in a year. Her single mother, who worked as a maid in Zone 16, did not have the resources to pay for private violin lessons or another private school. Azucena recalls:

—I loved that place. I even went to practise in the holidays, despite how uncomfortable I felt when he came to find me.”

Whatever Campo’s behaviour, then, he was the gatekeeper to the students’ music education and musical dreams. Yet it is important to underline that he does not come across in the article as a pantomime villain, but rather as a complex character. One teacher describes him as charismatic, affectionate with the children, and interested in their musical development. It is not hard to see how such a figure might have appeared to many people as a force for good.

But according to the sources in the investigation, this charisma and affection regularly shaded into something rather darker. One teacher alleges that Bruno was lascivious:

“He was always coming on to the girls. He would get close to them and touch their backs or hug them. It was very strange and I didn’t like it. He was like a Don Juan with the female students.”

There were a number of complaints about his behaviour, yet their handling, as described in the article, points towards a flawed institutional culture. When one student came forward, the school and other students allegedly blamed her for trying to seduce Campo, and they protected the director. After making a complaint, one alleged victim was thrown out of the music school, and she claims that she was warned that taking the complaint higher would lead to worse consequences. The context thus conspired against making formal complaints, and against making such complaints stick.

Nevertheless, on 14 March 2012, a group of 19 parents of students at the music school sent a letter to the mayor, setting out Bruno Campo’s alleged abusive behaviour and complaining that excessive pressure was being placed on students. The authorities did not respond. However, according to the journalist, they did help Campo to leave Guatemala, providing him with a scholarship to go and study in Italy. He left for Europe before his contract had finished, without a word of warning or farewell to the students and staff at the music school.

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The follow-up radio program on 12 June covered similar territory, but also shed further light on the story. The journalist reported that many interviewees had described Bruno Campo in similar terms: as charismatic and seductive; but also as manipulative and willing to trample on others in order to get what he wanted. He was labelled a “genius” but also a “nightmare.”

There was much discussion of how the problems had persisted for so long. The journalists were puzzled that Campo had not been censured, given that the issues were relatively common knowledge within and around the music school and had given rise to formal complaints. One of the former students pointed out that as long as the program produced (musical) results, no questions were asked. Why ask questions if it was “working,” if it was “saving children”?

Most illuminating, though, were the discussions around the issues of risk and vulnerability. As one of the journalists noted, many parents had put their children in the music school to keep them out of harm’s way in the afternoons. Yet the multiple accusations suggested that they might actually have put their children into harm’s way.

One of the former students suggested that artistic education was risky, because of the long hours and close physical contact. And as one of the journalists underlined, this particular program was created specifically for vulnerable children, and yet its design left them even more vulnerable and all but defenceless in the face of the kind of oppressive behaviour described by many witnesses. Also, it was argued that children who live in violent contexts tend to see violence as relatively normal and are thus less likely to react or complain about it than other children, particularly when valuable opportunities are held up as a prize for compliance and silence. Recall Azucena Salinas: “one normalizes it – it’s like I learnt to live with that, as long as I could play the violin.” From this perspective, Campo’s Sistema-inspired music school looks like a recipe for disaster: an all-powerful maestro working (often behind closed doors) with vulnerable children whose musical future depended on him and who were socially conditioned to normalize abusive behaviour.

(Part 2 to follow)