“The limits of musical populism”: Abreu and his legacy under the spotlight

José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema’s founder, died on March 24. Surveying the press coverage since then, I was reminded of a 25-year-old article in which Oscar Ramos mocked Chefi Borzacchini, Abreu’s leading supporter at El Nacional newspaper, for painting the minister as a hero “in language that recalls the odes of Gómez” – a reference to Venezuela’s early-twentieth-century dictator. Ramos raised an eyebrow at Abreu’s uncannily and uniformly positive press: “Do you recall any criticism of the cultural policy of Pérez-Abreu appearing at any point in the press?” (Abreu was minister of culture and president of the National Council for Culture (CONAC) during the second government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez.)

Other journalists provided explanations. Earle Herrera (1994) mocked the paid hacks who sang the praises of CONAC’s managers, and claimed that “the current leadership of CONAC owes much of its ‘shine’ to these shameful and pricey pens.” Joaquín López Mujica, a member of CONAC’s consultative council, claimed that Abreu had approximately forty journalists among his consultants and asserted: “Abreu’s management has been characterized by covert control of information. It’s what could be termed a totalitarianism of cultural information” (Santodomingo 1990).

Abreu employed both the carrot and the stick in his dealings with the press. He waged a vicious public campaign after Gustavo Tambascio wrote a critical review of a concert by the Simón Bolívar orchestra in 1979. Javier Sansón published a satirical piece about El Sistema on February 15, 2005, in his column “Música de solfa” in El Universal; he was suspended shortly afterwards. A journalist who was interviewed for a job as a music critic for El Nacional was told that he would never be able to say anything negative about El Sistema, not even in passing.

Press coverage of Abreu and El Sistema has thus always been dramatically skewed, and the coverage of the last three weeks has been no exception. Nevertheless, since Abreu’s death, a few writers have broken through the information barrier and voiced the kinds of criticisms that have long been quite commonplace in the Caracas cultural scene, if very rarely articulated in public for the reasons mentioned above. Unfortunately all wrote in Spanish, which means they will be even easier to ignore for those who specialize in ignoring evidence that Abreu was not the universally admired social justice warrior of their imagination. Still, here are some summaries, as a public service to non-Spanish readers who are interested in other sides of this story.

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In “José Antonio Abreu y los límites del populismo musical,” published in the New York Times, Aquiles Esté argued that El Sistema is at grave risk because “Abreu’s formula has reached its limit”; negotiating with power is no longer a sustainable strategy. Esté’s critique is, like that of many Venezuelans, focused on politics. He portrays El Sistema as an idea “perfectly attuned to the populist ears of Venezuelan presidents”; it thus made huge strides at the expense of other art forms (particularly when Abreu held the purse strings as minister of culture), but when Chávez came to power, the program became not just a central program of the state but also a fundamental tool of political propaganda. As others have noted, the performance by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra during the closure of the opposition-slanted Radio Caracas TV in 2007 marked a symbolic turning point. (The notion that El Sistema was politicized under President Maduro thus does not hold water; indeed, Abreu and Chávez also jointly launched Misión Música in 2007.) While Abreu’s supporters argue that he did what he had to do for El Sistema to prosper, Esté takes the line that the country paid the price for the program’s boom: “when democracy was at risk and sought one of its most illustrious sons, it did not find him. He was already too committed to a delirious populism that has ended up destroying his country.”

The picture of El Sistema today is not a rosy one. “El Sistema is exhausted: not just because of Abreu’s death, but also because the economic and political foundations on which it was based have exploded.” The “infinitely rich state” with coffers full of oil revenues that El Sistema required – one reason that it has not genuinely been replicated anywhere else in the world – no longer exists. If critics have spent decades denouncing El Sistema’s special treatment, its “irregularities and privileges,” the program is now “bleeding to death,” with many musicians leaving and those left behind struggling to survive.

Esté acknowledges that some Sistema students overcame poverty through music, but he dismisses the wider narrative of orchestral music as a route for the excluded to transform their economic fortunes as “musical populism.” (I recall Iván Martínez’s critique of the Simón Bolívar orchestra a couple of years ago as “the worst of populism made music.”) This story may have been the best or even only way to secure government support, but that does not make it accurate (unsurprisingly, there is no robust research to prove it). Today, with most Sistema employees now earning just a few dollars a month, classical music and poverty go hand in hand in Venezuela – and Esté does not portray this as a tragedy that has befallen El Sistema so much as a catastrophe partly of Abreu’s own making.

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Gisela Kozak Rovero considers both the praise and the criticism of Abreu in her essay “Alabado y cuestionado: José Antonio Abreu y el Sistema de Orquestas de Venezuela.” The framing and the content recall Rafael Rivero’s famous essay about Abreu, “The Philanthropic Ogre” (1994). She charts more of a middle path than Rivero, who was more biting in tone and argument, though she recognizes that it is a path between positive and negative extremes. She provides a catalogue of criticisms that Abreu has attracted over the decades, ranging from the musical and pedagogical to the economic, political, and personal; though as it is an opinion piece rather than an investigative one, she does not provide new evidence to back them up or counter them. While she sits on the fence on many issues, she makes an important contribution by putting the questions on the table, underlining that they are also posed by others, and insisting that they need to be taken seriously rather than swept under the rug. “It has been an error on the part of its leading figures to behave like churches that don’t respond to criticism.” Their silence in the face of my book, she states, “was a mistake.”

There are some eye-opening moments, at least for those who do not know Abreu’s story well. She notes that his protégés were usually men, and in a memorable line, describes how he “maintained a sort of masculine brotherhood of Knights Templar of classical music, with Abreu as the focus of the cult.”

Kozak Rovero echoes Esté in her questions about the dividing up of culture funds in favour of Abreu’s project. But she goes deeper into cultural issues, raising concerns about El Sistema’s repertoire, research, the cultural horizons of its students, and its impact on classical music audiences in Venezuela. She, too, is somewhat sceptical about El Sistema’s salvation narrative, suggesting that it probably does not reflect more than isolated cases. Like Esté, she sees it more as a way of gaining political favour than a genuine and robust argument. If saving children is really the goal, she suggests, then there are better ways to spend the money than on music lessons.

She insists on the need for more independent evaluation and auditing to determine more precisely whether El Sistema has had the effects that it claims. (There is of course the IDB’s 2016 evaluation, which suggests that the answer is no.) Despite its title, hers is really an essay about the future of El Sistema. Her view is that it should continue, but that it should be audited, improved, and opened to public scrutiny. (Whether a “cleaned up” Sistema could work is a moot point.)

Like Esté, she ends by putting Abreu’s political role under the microscope. “Abreu allowed the political instrumentalization of El Sistema by the revolution that has destroyed Venezuela. He could have resisted and even been removed, but he preferred to keep quiet and stay in charge. […] Maybe Abreu had no choice but to act as he did, but then the question remains whether it was worth it: the present-day diaspora of its members and the lack of money to sustain the institution suggest that the price may have been too high.” Her conclusion is that “El Sistema should be maintained, but Abreu needs to be stripped of his cloak of divinity: he was a genius constructor whose blindness and weakness gravely wounded his work and its beneficiaries in their own country.”

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Across the border in Colombia, Santiago Villa considered Abreu’s role in recent Venezuelan history in his short article “Abreu ante la barbarie.” Villa views his subject through the lens of El Sistema’s opulent HQ, the Centre for Social Action through Music. He begins with an amusing anecdote about trying to interview Abreu and instead being given a two-hour guided tour of every last corner of the building by El Maestro, who did not provide the journalist with even a scrap of usable material for his article.

Today, the design of the chairs in his concert hall – the work of the artist Carlos Cruz Diez – and those wooden facilities whose acoustics were made specifically for Viennese salon music look like obscene displays of opulence when there are no medicines in hospitals and children are suffering from hunger.

In his speech when receiving the TED Prize, Abreu said, “the most tragic thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or of the roof, it is the feeling of being no one,” and El Sistema offers the promise to young people that through music they may feel like someone. But the situation has changed so much in Venezuela since 2009 that there is something disturbing about giving a violin as a lifeline to children who do not have access to antibiotics and are malnourished. Perhaps the most tragic thing about poverty IS the lack of bread.

After providing contrasting examples such as the pianist and activist Gabriela Montero and the “violinist of the protests” Wuilly Arteaga, Villa echoes Adorno’s famous phrase by asking:

is playing classical music in Venezuela, after its catastrophe, also an act of barbarism?

The reply has already been given by History. In conditions of barbarism art preserves its dignity if it is an act of resistance.

José Antonio Abreu, however, was not a person who could go against the system. Indeed, his life’s work was called The System – with capital letters.

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Historically, Abreu’s stranglehold over the mainstream press in Venezuela and the generally credulous and adulatory approach of the international media have meant that most of the best writing about El Sistema has appeared on social media. Eduardo Casanova is a prominent Venezuelan cultural and political figure who had known Abreu for exactly 60 years at the time of the latter’s death, and he has been a consistent critic of the maestro from this close vantage point. They were students together, and as a cultural official in Caracas in the 1970s, Casanova was closely involved in the genesis of El Sistema. Casanova has long criticized Abreu’s political opportunism, but in a recent post, he also alleged that there were also some shady areas in the maestro’s personal history. As regards El Sistema, his position – like others’, mentioned above – is that Abreu’s program prospered at the expense of others, and indeed damaged other cultural institutions, particularly Venezuela’s existing music schools. Casanova shows an intriguing mixture of admiration and distaste for Abreu’s methods – but distaste wins the day. Echoing Kozak Rovero, he argues that “El Sistema can be saved and turned around, because it was a very good idea, but one that was carried out without the necessary rectitude.”

He followed up with further criticism: “when I point to the moon with my finger, the majority of those whom I want to see the moon just see the finger that is pointing.” This post is aimed at those who would rather shoot the messenger than listen to the message. He gives a handful of examples of people who have spoken up about El Sistema’s problems; “but for every one of them there are ten who attack them, nine of them because they were hired by the clever creator of El Sistema, and one convinced that they are on their way to heaven. Those defenders, whether driven by calculation or love, avoid at all costs getting to the heart of the matter, and prefer to talk about the finger and not the moon.”

Here, he describes El Sistema as “a great swindle [that] did a lot of damage to Venezuelan music.” An instrument of personal power for Abreu, “El Sistema ended up being something as corrupt as the Oderbrecht method, but protected by the fallacy that it saved masses of children from poverty.”

There were numerous other interesting posts and extended comments, but too many to list here. To take just a one example, the Venezuelan composer and guitarist Alfonso Montes raised many of the now-familiar questions about Abreu’s methods and results, the way that money was spent, and particularly El Sistema’s huge costs: he asks how a country in which many people do not have a reliable supply of drinking water or electricity managed to send symphony orchestras off on international tours and to luxurious festivals at public cost.

Suffice it to say that there has been a rich debate unfolding on social media, in notable contrast to the mainstream equivalent, in which many journalists seemed to have dusted off their old press releases and Wikipedia pages, citing out-of-date statistics and decade-old boosterish quotes from prominent figures who are today rather quieter. (I may have missed it, but I have seen no comment from Simon Rattle, who was once such a big supporter of Abreu that he argued that the maestro deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.)

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Although most of the press has been about Abreu, Venezuelan social media was also abuzz with the news that Delcy Rodríguez (Venezuela’s number 2 politician) and President Nicolás Maduro’s son had been appointed as directors of El Sistema. In some ways there was not much new here: Jesse Chacón, another high-level Chavista politician, had been on the board since 2013, and the top-level collaboration between the government and El Sistema goes back much further than that, as mentioned above. But many reacted as though this was the final nail in El Sistema’s coffin.

Now is the time for the rest of the world to cut ties with El Sistema,” declared Norman Lebrecht. His headline was provocative, but underneath lie some serious questions. El Sistema’s executive director, Eduardo Méndez, sits on boards with the great and good of the international El Sistema-inspired (ESI) world, and also with Maduro’s son and right-hand woman. Umbrella organizations like Sistema Global, and individual projects like Sistema Scotland, now find themselves in official partnerships with some rather controversial political figures, increasingly regarded as international pariahs, and with a program that is now uncontestably a propaganda weapon of Maduro’s government. The ESI sphere has long tried to claim, against the evidence, that El Sistema is an apolitical program, but that game is now up.

Whether the press and wider public pay attention or not, the ESI sphere finds itself in a bind. Does it continue its unquestioned support for El Sistema and its official narrative, and risk ending up looking like the classical music equivalent of Stalin apologists? Or does it admit that El Sistema is a political tool and its narrative unrealistic propaganda, thereby undermining its own foundation and distancing itself from the program that is its raison d’être?

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How to sum up Abreu? I’m not even going to try. I have published more than enough on this topic in recent years; those who are genuinely interested in understanding Abreu can draw their own conclusions from the evidence. But it is a complicated task. Some people loved him, some hated him. He was a saint to some, a devil to others. Supporters argue that his program is a rare Venezuelan success story that has inspired music educators around the world; critics claim that it is complicit with the country’s decline and represents a backwards step for music education internationally. It is not enough to say that both sides are wrong and give him 5 out of 10. In many ways, both sides are right.

Weighing up great achievements and great failings is not like putting lumps of iron on a set of scales; it is more like considering whether the ends justify the means. In other words, it is a political, philosophical, and ethical task, and as such, the result depends on the observer’s political, philosophical, and ethical convictions. Observing informed Venezuelans discussing the matter on social media, I saw little debate over whether Abreu had his questionable sides or not; the debate was whether those questionable sides were outweighed by the positives, and there was no consensus.

What now for El Sistema? Again, I’m largely going to duck that one. At the start of the final chapter of my book, a number of Venezuelan musicians gazed into a crystal ball. Not everything has come to pass, but considering that it was seven years ago and El Sistema was riding high at the time, their predictions were pretty accurate. They saw the program’s growth as unsustainable, its situation as unstable, and a correction – probably a major one – as inevitable, particularly once Abreu was gone. I’m not sure that I could improve much on that.

Officially, the program continues to expand, and at the Abreu concert it claimed to have reached its millionth current participant. It is in the later stages of building a new headquarters that were costed at $437.5 million USD back in 2010. Yet most of its employees now earn just a few dollars a month and suffer from the same lack of basic necessities (food, medicine) as most of their fellow countrymen. Consequently, I hear the same thing from everyone I know: musicians, administrators, and students are leaving in droves. Esté is apparently hearing the same thing, describing El Sistema as “bleeding to death.” In a recent article, a Sistema mother wrote about her daughter:

she can grasp the decline that El Sistema is going through: the núcleos have been abandoned by children and teachers who have been prevented from continuing by the crisis. Her close friends and teachers are no longer there.

The núcleo where she started has disappeared and the survivors have regrouped in a central núcleo whose own weakness forced it to accept them without much protocol or process. In the rehearsals the atmosphere and talk is of “this is going to end” because the institution cannot even provide them with printed music.

This is unfortunate for Abreu’s fans, because looking elsewhere, his legacy is hard to pin down. He left no pedagogical method; he was no Suzuki. There is no body of repertoire or didactic materials. There is no conceptual framework, just a few cryptic remarks about “a system that is not a system” and “being, not yet being.” There is a distinctly dubious and anachronistic salvation narrative, a mystical belief in the power of music to transform material realities, and a neoliberal’s conviction that social problems are rooted in individual failings – but no good evidence or arguments to support any of this, and little backing from music education research (see, for example, the monumental Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education).

Some will hold up “social action through music” (SATM) as El Sistema’s essence and Abreu’s legacy. Yet as the writers above noted, this was a funding strategy, aimed at the ears of Venezuelan presidents and the IDB, and it may have actually been borrowed from the Brazilian program Ação Social Pela Música. The ideas behind it have been around since the Ancient Greeks, and there are many historical antecedents of El Sistema. In other words, if this is Abreu’s legacy, then he will go down in history as a master brander and fundraiser rather than thinker or music educator.

The absence of foundational social principles in El Sistema’s original constitution and Abreu’s early interviews, the abundant evidence that the program was created with musical ends in mind, and the low level of participation by the poor reported in the 2016 IDB evaluation, put more spanners in the works of attempts to construct Abreu as a visionary social reformer. SATM is not a distinctive, identifiable practice; but nor is it even a consistent thread or demonstrable focus in El Sistema. Outside of Venezuela, the idea of social action through music has unquestionably inspired many people; the value of what they have been inspired to do, on either a social or a music education level, is more of a moot point, reflected in the very mixed opinions of researchers (and even some employees) on ESI programs.

Abreu has left a couple of eye-wateringly expensive buildings in central Caracas (but not the regional centres that the IDB really wanted); they have a good chance of standing the test of time, though what will go on within their walls is an open question. The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra’s performances will live on in the memory of many. But behind them lie a declining music-training program, a diaspora of musicians trying to find a foothold in a challenging professional sphere, and a worrying economy with the truth. A large amount of money has gone into El Sistema, but it is less clear where all that money has gone or what of lasting substance has come out of it. The tributes have flowed, and the language still recalls the odes of Gómez, but over the longer run, history may not be much kinder to Abreu than to the Venezuelan dictators that this “cultural caudillo” so resembled. Much depends on whether El Sistema’s history is written by independent critical thinkers like Esté, Kozak Rovero, and Casanova, or by descendants of the “shameful and pricey pens” and partially informed foreign observers who were so important in constructing the Abreu myth in the first place.