New book about El Sistema paints unflattering portrait

A new book about El Sistema in Venezuela paints an unflattering portrait of its leadership, internal culture

When Geoffrey Baker, a music professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, traveled to Venezuela to work on a book about El Sistema, he was expecting to write a predictably upbeat account of the country's much lauded classical-music education system.

"I thought I was doing a feel-good piece of academic research," he recalled in a recent interview. But he said what he discovered over the course of a year of research and interviews surprised him.

"Bit by bit, I got a picture that was very different from the one I expected. I certainly didn't go in there with the intention of writing the book that I wrote. Had I known how it would turn out, my jaw would be on the floor."

An in-depth study that draws provocative conclusions, "El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela's Youth" is bound to raise eyebrows for its often unflattering depiction of how the organization is run.

El Sistema was founded nearly four decades ago by Jose Antonio Abreu, and provides free music education to hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged students throughout Venezuela. In recent years, the program has received glowing coverage from the international media, including a profile on CBS' "60 Minutes."

The organization's most famous alumnus is Gustavo Dudamel, the 33-year-old music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dudamel also heads the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, which consists of El Sistema students and alumni, and has toured internationally with the group.

The new book, published by Oxford University Press, purports to offer a counterbalance to El Sistema's formidable publicity machinery. Baker, who specializes in Latin American music, said he spent 12 months researching his book in Venezuela, interviewing people throughout El Sistema, focusing mostly on students and musicians on the ground level of the organization. Many of the interviewees agreed only to be quoted anonymously, for fear of repercussions.

The author recently spoke by phone from London. Here are excerpts from the interview.

The book portrays a climate of fear in El Sistema where there's zero tolerance for criticism.

El Sistema has a monopoly on classical music in Venezuela. Abreu is famed for his intolerance of criticism. There are many stories of people who have crossed him, and have been blacklisted and fired. Everyone depends on El Sistema to a degree and to go against it is professional suicide. None of these people would have spoken to me on the record. They were saying strong things. Anonymity was a first step to opening up.

You depict Abreu's leadership style as autocratic.

His word is law. Directors within El Sistema are his proteges who have worked their way up, some since they were teenage musicians. It's not a normal professional organization where you hire people from the outside for their expertise. He's the one with the baton, and if you disagree with that, you're out. This is how conductors work. They rule the show and decide everything.

A lot of the global media coverage of Abreu has been one-note adulatory. Do you think they got it wrong? 

Absolutely. Most journalists don't have time to spend a year researching. This allowed me to see different sides of Abreu -- it took months and months. People don't like talking about this with foreigners. There was some suspicion. That image has been constructed very recently -- it's been constructed in the international arena, at a time when El Sistema has achieved its global fame, around 2006. He's achieved and maintained power in complex circumstances. People see him as a politician -- a schemer and manipulator, someone who has a thirst for power in many ways.

How does Dudamel fit into all of this?

He's not someone I was interested in all that much. He's an absent media star in Venezuela. He's a figure head for this social project, and at the same time, he's advertising Rolex watches. It's revealing: El Sistema does fit very nicely into the star system of the global music industry. I don't think people think beyond the possible contradictions -- it's a project based on helping the poor, where all the top people are touring the world and being stars. One of the things that became clear to me, despite the official rhetoric, is that El Sistema funnels its resources all to the top. In many ways, that's obvious, but in what sense can this be described as a social project aimed at the poor?

In the book, you describe the internal culture as a kind of false meritocracy, where getting ahead depends on one's personal connections.

This is prevalent throughout Venezuela. Who's my lever? Who knows somebody? The further up you go in El Sistema, the more opaque it becomes. You can't get to the top of the organization if you don't have the leverage.

The book contains an account of sexual relations within El Sistema.

These orchestras are very tight-knit groups. They spend hours together each day. They know their personal lives inside and out. I've heard stories of students going on dates with their teachers or directors of their musical schools, and teenage students becoming pregnant from their instructors. If I had heard this secondhand, I would dismiss it as scuttlebutt. But it's quite clear that this is the general atmosphere. Different countries have different norms about this kind of thing. The line between consensual relationships and abusive ones is different in different countries. In Venezuela, it's much more gray. I think it's a problem in a system where leverage is so important for getting ahead.

Your book also discusses El Sistema's relationship with controversial politicians like the late Hugo Chavez and the current president, Nicolas Maduro.

It's very complex. They made a decision to be closer to the government when Chavez came to power. There are pros and cons to that -- more funding, and they get the resources and support. In terms of expanding the program, that's been great. But the downside is that they are a branch of the government. This has caused tension in the program -- musicians are trotted out to play at official ceremonies for leaders, and this can be a problem especially if musicians are from different sides of the political spectrum. In a society that is as divided as Venezuela's, what they lost was their independence. Anything they do is going to be criticized by half the country. That's the price they pay. They have alienated a lot of people because it's a very divided people. A lot of people can't stand that Abreu is in cahoots with the government. Some people would say that Abreu had no choice, and that may well be true. But we can say there are consequences to what he's done.

Did anyone from El Sistema ask you to stop your research? 

No, I was treated very well and everyone was very nice to me. In Caracas, it wasn't possible to visit schools on your own. I was escorted. They rolled out the red carpet for me. In the provinces, the restrictions didn't apply. By the time I realized that things weren't as they seemed, I was careful about the questions I asked.

Do you expect you'll be welcomed back by El Sistema in the future?

I don't know, and I wouldn't want to say. As things stand, I would say no. But it's a huge program and there are a lot of good people. 

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT 

 
 

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