El Sistema rising up?

I’m a fan of ethnography, though like any scholarly method, it needs to be used self-critically. When I’m in the middle of long-term fieldwork, I like to torment myself with the question: what have I found out that a competent journalist couldn’t have found out in a week? If the answer is “not much,” then either I’ve chosen a poor topic to research, or – more likely – I’m not doing my job properly.

I was intrigued but ultimately disappointed to read Yana Stainova’s recent article about El Sistema and politics. Intrigued, because it’s extremely rare to find informed writing on this topic in the media, and Stainova had spent 16 months doing fieldwork in Venezuela. Unlike most self-proclaimed Sistema experts, she has paid her dues in the country and got a PhD to show for it. But ultimately disappointed, because her article doesn’t go much beyond existing journalistic writing on the topic by the likes of Nicholas Casey (New York Times), which she both cites and echoes. It is hard to see the “added value” from years of academic study on El Sistema in her article, which also reproduces rather than complicates popular myths about the power of music.

Her argument that there has been a shift in the political alignment of El Sistema’s musicians from the government to the opposition rests on three pieces of evidence that are in fact distinctly ambiguous. The first is the much reported, filmed, photographed, and interviewed “violinist of the protests,” Wuilly Arteaga. However, Arteaga is not simply an “El Sistema violinist” as she states. He was part of El Sistema at one point but had left the program by the time of his rise to stardom as a protester. Indeed, he claimed in a TV interview that he had left after experiencing repression within the organization. His former colleagues have a different explanation for his departure, but the point remains the same: he cannot be seen simply as representing El Sistema, particularly now that he has left for the US, where he is enjoying his five minutes of fame on the Latino chat-show circuit.

The second is Gustavo Dudamel’s Facebook post criticizing the government after the death of Sistema musician Armando Cañizales (though curiously the conductor’s name doesn’t feature in her article). This statement was trumpeted by English-language media sources such as the New York Times, but they failed to take sufficient account of Dudamel’s long history of silence before this point and the degree of scepticism towards him among Venezuelans, including Cañizales’s family. This scepticism seems to have been little affected by the Facebook post, which many saw as too little, too late. Dudamel has returned to silence since then, which would seem to provide some support for the tweet on May 8 by Diego Arria, a former Governor of Caracas and Venezuelan representative at the UN, who claimed that Dudamel’s statement was made under pressure from the Los Angeles Philharmonic (an allegation that the orchestra denied). Be that as it may, many Venezuelans are dubious about the idea that Dudamel has had a genuine change of heart and is now aligned with the opposition.

The third is a protest by around 50 musicians outside the Sistema headquarters on May 4, after the death of Cañizales. The largest banner showed his name and the words “El Sistema cannot sound the same.” Yet both the protest and the banner are revealing in ways other than those that Stainova suggests. According to official figures, there are 827,000 musicians in El Sistema. That 50 of them should make a one-off protest hardly supports the thesis of a political sea change (or Casey’s NYT headline: “Venezuela musicians rise up”). What is striking, nearly two months after the protest, is precisely that El Sistema does sound the same. It is business as usual for the institution, insofar as anything is business as usual in Venezuela today.

More revealing than the few, ambiguous signs of resistance is what hasn’t happened. There has been no orchestral protest (e.g. signs on stage); no mass resignations; no refusal to go on the international tours that the government funds for propaganda purposes. No leading conductor or soloist has publicly resigned, refusing to present a harmonious face to the world. Dudamel’s schedule continues to show overseas engagements with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra. The bigger picture is essentially undisturbed.

The isolated actions of a few individuals do not point to any larger movement. What Stainova fails to report is the control that El Sistema continues to maintain over its musicians, thanks in part to its near monopoly over classical music in Venezuela, and the extent to which the institution remains firmly aligned with the government. As Arteaga, the violinist, said after one of his public appearances, Sistema musicians who had planned to accompany him withdrew at the last minute under pressure from the institution, which allegedly threatened to take their instruments away if they appeared.

Of course, Cañizales died in an anti-government protest. But there is little evidence to suggest that he was typical of El Sistema musicians rather than an anomaly. The first Sistema musician to become a cause célèbre in this year’s protests was the horn-player Frederick Chirino Pinto, who made it very clear that he was not participating but simply on his way to a rehearsal when he got caught up in events. (Indeed, his cry to the police -“¡Yo soy músico vale!” – underlined his assumption that if you’re a musician then you’re not a protester.) It may well be the case that the majority of Sistema musicians are critics of the government, mirroring wider Venezuelan society, but there is every reason to think that Chirino Pinto is the typical example, not Cañizales.

It’s very hard to get much across in 700 words, and all arguments appear simplistic within such confines. I’m sure Stainova’s academic work is more nuanced. But her argument that “El Sistema musicians are defying their expected roles and summoning their musical skills to oppose the very government that funds them” is distinctly flawed as a summary. Key figures in recent developments such as Dudamel and Arteaga are ambiguous actors at an ambiguous moment, and neither can stand in for “El Sistema musicians” as a whole. Matters are much less clear-cut than Stainova suggests.

A wholesale shift may happen at some point, possibly even soon; Dudamel and El Sistema are surely keeping an eagle eye on the political winds and I expect them to change sides if the government looks set to fall. But that point has not yet come, and looking at the institution of El Sistema as a whole, conformity is much more in evidence than opposition.


There are other puzzling aspects to the article. The characterization of El Sistema is distinctly slapdash for someone with a PhD on the program: “a state-funded Venezuelan initiative that provides free classical music education and instruments to more than half a million predominantly lower-class youth all over the country. Founded in 1975, El Sistema aims to lessen socioeconomic exclusion and everyday violence through music.”

Yet according to current official figures, there are 827,000 participants. If Stainova disagrees with the official figures, as I do, then she should say so. If she doesn’t, she should quote the current ones. El Sistema is not even always free at the point of delivery (some schools charge a subscription), and Stainova overlooks the extent to which costs such as accessories (strings, reeds) have increasingly fallen on participants in recent years. Hence the claim from a focus group at one Caracas núcleo that “in El Sistema there are no poor people because they would not be able to keep up with the routine expenditure that it requires, and that on the contrary, those who spend their time there have a basic level of economic resources that allows them to pay for travel, food, instrument maintenance and repairs, uniforms, etc.”

And where is the recognition of the major 2016 Inter-American Development Bank study that raised questions over both the recipient population and the social impact of El Sistema? It certainly undermined statements such as “most El Sistema musicians were raised in lower-class Venezuelan barrios,” as it pointed to a poverty rate one-third of that in wider society. One would expect an academic to keep abreast of such information.

Also revealing is the paragraph on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. For Stainova, the orchestra provides “powerful demonstrations of how young people can listen to each other across the boundaries of difference in the act of playing music together.” Yet there is a whole academic mini-field of critiques of this orchestra (by Rachel Beckles Willson and several others) that suggest a much more complicated picture. Stainova’s take seems more like a “fan’s eye view” than an academic assessment.

This romanticization of music making that permeates her article comes to a head in her final words:

“Beyond fueling political action with creativity, the musical and social skills that these young people have acquired embody the human values that are fundamental to the creation of a new political community. The collective practice of making music is forging bonds of solidarity – trust, the ability to listen – in a fractured society.”

Collective music making has this potential, and at times even may live up to it. Yet as an ethnographer who has spent a lengthy period in Venezuela, how can Stainova not be aware of the extent to which actual practice in Sistema orchestras – particularly the top ones – also frequently diverges from this idealistic model, and may be riven by authoritarianism, overwork, competition, bullying, favouritism, and other unsavoury behaviours? This is not to suggest that such problems characterize all Sistema orchestras at all times, but a depiction that does not acknowledge them at all is dream of orchestral music making, not a critical ethnographic analysis.

In Stainova’s vision, collective music making is a utopian space that may expand from El Sistema to wider society and eventually transform the nation. This is enchanting to imagine, but Abreu has been preaching this message for many years, and despite El Sistema growing continuously and receiving unprecedented political and economic support, realities have turned out to be far more sobering at both micro (orchestral) and macro (national) levels. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. How are this new political community and bonds of solidarity going to emerge in Venezuela if so many classical musicians are leaving the country?

Desertion is a bigger story than opposition, but it is less romantic and is taking place sotto voce, under the radar, rather than in the pages of international newspapers. Yet for this precise reason, it would make an excellent research topic, and I hope that we will soon see the first ethnography of the Venezuelan classical music diaspora, showing how academic research can push beyond the simplistic lines laid down by the media.

UPDATE: 2 July

Wuilly Arteaga has just published a declaration making clear both his criticisms of El Sistema and its musicians for their complicity with the government, and the extent to which he does not identify with the institution.