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Why has El Sistema Survived and Thrived?

Comparing the Political Histories of Venezuela’s El Sistema and Brazil’s Projeto Espiral

Keane Southard

MHS 590: Music and Politics

December 13, 2019


1

Introduction

El Sistema (The System), the informal name for the nationwide system of youth

orchestras and community music centers that serves approximately one million Venezuelan

youths, started in 1975 with just a handful of young musicians rehearsing in a parking garage

under the baton of José Antonio Abreu. The growth of this program and the musical and social

results it has achieved has made it famous around the world, especially thanks to the

international performances of its top orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, and its

most famous graduate, Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel. Just a year

after that first rehearsal, a very similar program called Projeto Espiral (The Spiral Project) was

founded in the neighboring country of Brazil. While both projects were founded in the mid-

1970s, received significant funding and support from their federal governments, had nearly

identical goals, focused on teaching music in group settings rather than private lessons,

experienced rapid growth in its first few years, and existed in South/Latin American nations with

volatile political climates, Projeto Espiral was significantly curtailed after only three years and

completely discontinued after ten while El Sistema grew to become world famous.

Why did El Sistema survive, and indeed thrive, while Projeto Espiral folded? In this

paper, I identify three major reasons for El Sistema’s remarkable success: it started during an oil

boom that provided the Venezuelan government with a flood of funds it could spend on

programs such as this, it was influenced by and built upon the work of several other Venezuelan

youth orchestras, and most significantly, its founder, José Antonio Abreu, was an immensely

skilled and experienced politician with many political connections and an amazing ability to

raise funds. I will also compare and contrast the histories of these programs to better understand

why one survived and the other didn’t.


2

A Brief History of El Sistema

In February 1975, musician, economist, and politician José Antonio Abreu, invited

young classical musicians in Caracas, the capital and largest city of Venezuela, to be a part of a

new youth orchestra. His initial goal for creating the orchestra was “to put down a foundation

for a total transformation of the art of music in the country, opening up a path for a whole

generation of young Venezuelan musicians via the orchestra.”1 This was because at that time, as

Tricia Tunstall points out, “the classical music world of Venezuela was dominated by

professional orchestras in Caracas and the western city of Maracaibo that were made up almost

entirely of musicians from Europe and North America,”2 while young Venezuelan classical

instrumentalists had few opportunities to perform in ensembles and even fewer to play

professionally. A year earlier, Abreu had returned from a visit to the USA which “expanded

[his] view of music education,” and then began a concert series called “Festival Bach.” 3 He

invited many of the young musicians he had worked with in that concert series to join his new

orchestra. Diana Hollinger notes that accounts differ on exactly how many musicians came to

that first rehearsal in a vacant parking garage, ranging from eight to fourteen, but these were

1
“José Antonio Abreu: La vamos a llamar «Simón Bolívar».” Venezuela
Sinfónica, February 27, 2017, https://www.venezuelasinfonica.com/jose-antonio-abreu-la-
vamos-a-llamar-simon-bolivar/ Translated by Geoffrey Baker, in Geoffrey Baker,
“Professionalization or rescuing the poor?” El Sistema Blog, March 1, 2017.
https://geoffbakermusic.wordpress.com/el-sistema-older-posts/professionalization-or-rescuing-
the-poor-the-origins-of-el-sistema-in-abreus-own-words/
2
Tricia Tunstall, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative
Power of Music (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012), 55.
3
Alexandra Carlson, "The Story of Carora: The Origins of El Sistema," International
Journal of Music Education 34, no. 1 (2016): 68. Carlson doesn’t provide any details about
where in the USA Abreu went or what he did during his trip.
3

primarily students who had played under Abreu in Festival Bach.4 Despite the low turnout at

this first rehearsal, Abreu and this core group of young musicians actively recruited more players

and by the end of a month the orchestra had grown to about seventy-five musicians. After less

than three months of intensive rehearsals, sometimes rehearsing as much as twelve hours per

day, the orchestra, now called the Orquesta Nacional Juvenil de Venezuela “Juan José

Landaeta” (The Juan José Landaeta National Youth Orchestra), performed its first public

concert on April 30, 1975. According to Tunstall, “The concert was attended by a large

audience, including several government ministers and officials, and the orchestra received a

standing ovation.”5

After the success of this first concert, Abreu used his political connections to schedule a

second concert, given for the visiting president of Mexico, Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970-76).

Álvarez was so impressed with the orchestra that Abreu claims the president “invited us on the

spot to come to Mexico.”6 Through another of his political connections, Abreu managed to have

the orchestra flown to Mexico in a Venezuelan Army airplane where they performed four

concerts. Among the works they performed the was Mexican composer and conductor Carlos

Chávez’s “Toccata for Percussion” with the composer in the audience. So impressed with the

performance of his work, Chávez spent the next three months in Caracas working with Abreu’s

4
Diana Hollinger, “Instrument of Social Reform: A Case Study of the Venezuelan
System of Youth Orchestras,” (DMA diss., Arizona State University, 2006), 78-79.
5
Tunstall, Changing Lives, 60.
6
Tunstall, 60.
4

orchestra in intensive rehearsals from 9am to 9pm each day to help the still young orchestra

improve.7

In 1976, less than a year after the orchestra’s first rehearsal, Abreu brought his National

Youth Orchestra to the International Festival of Youth Orchestras in Aberdeen, Scotland where

they performed among orchestras from fourteen other countries. Chávez accompanied them and

conducted the ensemble to great success. The festival orchestra, made up of the top players from

the 1,400 participants, included more musicians from Venezuelan than from any other country.

It was this triumph in Scotland that Abreu used to convince the Venezuelan government to

financially support the orchestra shortly after they returned home.

During the year after the Scotland trip, Abreu began to create community music centers,

known as “núcleos,” and youth orchestras across the country, starting in the cities of Maracay

and Barquisimeto. In 1978, the National Youth Orchestra was renamed the Orquesta Sinfónica

Juvenil Simón Bolívar (Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra) and became a national model and

inspiration for new youth orchestras to be formed throughout the country.8 As “the System” was

beginning to take shape in 1979, the Venezuelan government formalized its support of the

program by creating a state foundation.

El Sistema’s history in the 1980s and 1990s then becomes quite unclear, with no

available sources being able to give many details. However, it is clear is that the program

expanded rapidly during this time. The expansion created more than fifty núcleos by the early

1980s, which included not only orchestras but choirs and both instrumental and general music

7
Tunstall, 61.
8
In 2011, the name of the orchestra was changed to the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón
Bolívar (Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra) as the age of the players became too old to justify
it as a youth orchestra.
5

training.9 Abreu also opened conservatories for advanced students, and eventually all twenty-

three Venezuelan states had at least one youth orchestra.10 In 1996, the state foundation that

supports the program was renamed the Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las

Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (State Foundation for the National System of

Venezuelan Children and Youth Orchestras), or FESNOJIV.

While accounts of the history of the program since 2000 are much more detailed than the

previous two decades, it is beyond the scope of this paper to include a comprehensive history of

the program in the new millennium. The program continued to expand greatly and became an

international phenomenon that has inspired similar programs (although none of comparable size)

in more than seventy countries. In March 2011, FESNOJIV was renamed the Fundación

Musical Simón Bolívar (Simón Bolívar Music Foundation) and official figures given by the

program in 2012 claimed it had approximately 200 music centers, almost 400 orchestras, and

around 350,000 participants.11 Despite Abreu’s death in March 2018 at the age of 78, the

program has continued to expand even more rapidly. According to figures on their official

website, the program now has 443 music centers, 1,722 orchestras, and 1,012,077 participants.12

9
Tunstall, Changing Lives, 72.
10
Hollinger, “Instrument of Social Reform,” 84.
11
Geoffrey Baker, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (New York, NY: Oxford
University Press, 2014), 3.
12
“Inicio,” Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar, accessed December 12, 2019,
http://fundamusical.org.ve/
6

A Brief History of Projeto Espiral

Brazil’s Projeto Espiral was founded by two musicians, the composer Marlos Nobre and

the violinist Alberto Jaffé. Since 1962, Nobre had been working at Radio MEC, the Ministry of

Education’s radio station, but later became the first director of the newly created Instituto

Nacional de Music (National Institute of Music), or INM, which was a division of the Fundação

Nacional de Artes (National Foundation for the Arts), or FUNARTE, which was established in

1975.13 According to Simone Dos Santos, his first priority as director was clear: “The objective

was to reverse the situation in which Brazil found itself with regard to the lack of string

instrumentalists for orchestras through the creation of music centers for the training of string

instrumentalists in states lacking symphony orchestras.”14 Just like Venezuela, Brazil’s

orchestras were completely dominated by foreign musicians. As Nobre explains, “A problem in

Brazil at that time was how to create an orchestra. We had to hire foreign musicians. All of the

Brazilian professional orchestras were made up of 98-99% foreigners. It was the same thing in

Venezuela then.”15

In 1976, Nobre contacted his friend, the violinist and pedagogue Alberto Jaffé to create

Projeto Espiral. Jaffé had created his own method of string pedagogy adapted from the Suzuki

method and had been looking for an opportunity to put it into practice.16 Jaffé’s daughter

13
Today the INM is now called the Centro da Música (The Music Center), or CEMUS.
14
Simone Dos Santos, "Projeto Espiral (1976-1979): Uma experiência de ensino coletivo
de instrumentos de cordas." Anais do 14º Colóquio de Pesquisa 1, (2016): 50. My translation
from Portuguese.
15
(Marlos Nobre, personal communication, November 2, 2013). My translation from
Portuguese.
16
The Jaffé method has since been adopted in many music schools in Brazil. “Painel
Funarte de Ensino Coletivo de Cordas: abertua homenageia Alberto Jaffe,” FUNARTE,
7

Renata, who is also a violinist and teacher, confirms that the original intent of the program was

not to give opportunities to the underprivileged, but to train qualified Brazilian instrumentalists:

“Our father looked to supply the lack of orchestral musicians. In truth, it was never driven by a

social concern.”17

Nobre made an agreement with Thomas Pompeu de Souza Brasil Netto, then the

president of the Serviço Social da Indústria (Industrial Social Service), or SESI, a nationwide

organization founded in 1946 that was created “to promote the quality of life of the employees

and their dependents” which includes “services in education, health, leisure, culture, nourishment

and promotion of citizenship,”18 to create the project’s first music center in the northeastern city

of Fortaleza, the capital of the state of Ceará.19 Projeto Espiral, so called because the idea was

“just like a spiral curve, starting in a central point (Fortaleza) and moving away from it to

connect several cities with the central idea of collective string teaching until it occupied the

entire country,”20 opened a further seven music centers over the following three years in different

locations around Brazil, as well as a luthier school in Rio de Janeiro, reaching at total of

approximately 5000 children of from age ten to eighteen. Like El Sistema, classes were

December 7, 2016, http://www.funarte.gov.br/musica/painel-funarte-de-ensino-coletivo-de-


cordas/
17
FUNARTE, “Painel Funarte de Ensino Coletivo de Cordas: abertua homenageia
Alberto Jaffe.” My translation from Portuguese.

Ana Gabriela Verotti Farah, “Serviço Social da Indústria – SESI,” The Brazil Business,
18

December 31, 2012, http://www.thebrazilbusiness.com/article/servico-social-da-industria-sesi


19
It is unclear how the connection to SESI was made. While Nobre told me that Netto
was a contact of his, Dos Santos states that Netto, “took note of Jaffé’s collective teaching work
and invited him to start a center for collective string teaching together with SESI” and that this
actually took place in 1975. Dos Santos, “Projeto Espiral,” 52. My translation from Portuguese.
20
Dos Santos, 50. My translation from Portuguese.
8

conducted daily at most of the centers and instruction was primarily in group settings. Beyond

wanting to employ Jaffé’s method, group teaching was used out of necessity, as there were not

enough qualified teachers in the country at the time.21

Despite the many similarities, there is no evidence that the two projects were aware of

each other in their earliest years. While Nobre states that he is “very good friends with Abreu,

practically his brother,” and has since composed, performed, and recorded works with the Simón

Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, he thinks that “It’s incredible that at the same time Abreu was

doing this in Venezuela and I didn’t know about it.”22 It wasn’t until 1978 or 1979 that Nobre

reconnected with Abreu and they realized how they had created such similar programs. Alberto

Jaffé’s children have also stated that their father was not influenced by El Sistema and was not

aware of it when Projeto Espiral began.23

Just like El Sistema, a goal of helping underprivileged children was later added to Projeto

Espiral’s original goal of training Brazilians for professional orchestra jobs, and, according to

Nobre, it was this aspect of their work that led to the program’s demise. Brazil had been under a

military dictatorship since 1964 with Ernesto Geisel as president (1974-79) at the time Projeto

Espiral began. Nobre explains that Geisel was tolerant of the program because his daughter,

Amalia Lucy Geisel “was very cultured and respected me a lot.”24 However, in 1979 the military

21
Dos Santos, 50. My translation from Portuguese.
22
(Marlos Nobre, personal communication, November 2, 2013). My translation from
Portuguese.
23
FUNARTE, “Painel Funarte de Ensino Coletivo de Cordas: abertua homenageia
Alberto Jaffe.” My translation from Portuguese.
24
(Marlos Nobre, personal communication, November 2, 2013). My translation from
Portuguese.
9

installed João Figueiredo as president and he was not supportive of the program. That same

year, Nobre was arrested by the military and interrogated about the project. During thirty-eight

hours of detainment without water or sleep, they accused Projeto Espiral of being a communist

program against the Brazilian government, arguing that the children of the program should grow

up to be industrial workers like their parents, while Nobre refuted the label of communist and

argued that “We are giving them another option for their lives.”25 Afraid that he would be

imprisoned or even killed, he was eventually released, which he later learned was due to the

intervention of Ney Braga, the Minister of Education, who respected the work Nobre was doing

with Projeto Espiral. Soon after, a new Minister of Education replaced Braga and fired Nobre.

Jaffé continued with the program for several more years, but after a change of leadership at

SESI, the leaders of the association “no longer gave importance to artistic teaching but only to

technique,”26 and the program was eventually discontinued around 1986.

Major Reasons for El Sistema’s Success

Despite their many similarities, these two programs met very different fates. In my

research, I have identified three major reasons that help explain El Sistema’s success: the

Venezuelan oil boom of the mid-1970s, the influence of several preexisting youth orchestras in

Venezuela which Abreu’s National Youth Orchestra built off of, and, most significantly, the

incredible political skills and many connections of Abreu himself.

25
(Marlos Nobre, personal communication, November 2, 2013). My translation from
Portuguese.
26
FUNARTE, “Painel Funarte de Ensino Coletivo de Cordas: abertua homenageia
Alberto Jaffe.” My translation from Portuguese.
10

The Venezuelan oil boom of the mid-1970s

As Geoffrey Baker, by far the most vocal critic of El Sistema, points out, “El Sistema

was born during a developmentalist peak, fueled by oil wealth.”27 High oil prices during the

mid-1970s created massive amounts of revenue for the Venezuelan government which they were

eager to spend, especially on cultural and educational projects. As Alexandra Carlson points out,

“Extra funds prompted the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez (1974–1979) to organize

educational scholarships, and his successor Luis Herrera Campíns (1979–1983) to found new

universities and construct the Teresa Carreño Theater, a site still used daily by Venezuela’s

orchestras.”28 Venezuela during this period has been referred to by Fernando Coronil as “the

magical state” and that it was “endowed with the power to replace reality with fabulous fictions

propped up by oil wealth.”29 Being founded during this time, Abreu’s program benefited from

this excess of funds and the government’s willingness to spend them. Had Abreu started his

National Youth Orchestra in the 1980s when oil prices sank and the economy contracted, it is

less likely that Abreu would have been able to initially gain federal funding for his program.

Venezuelan Youth Orchestra Precedents

Outside of Venezuela, it is commonly believed that Venezuela was a country without a

substantial Western classical music culture prior to El Sistema. But as Ludim Pedroza points

out, there were at least twenty-five Western classical orchestras that had existed in the country

27
Baker, El Sistema, 100.
28
Carlson, “The Story of Carora,” 66.
29
Quoted in Baker, El Sistema, 45.
11

between 1900-1973.30 Nor was El Sistema the first Venezuelan music institution to offer free

music instruction, as Pedroza notes that there were a “goodly number” of places available to

receive a free music education in the country at the time and states that, “The notion that in 1975

there were prohibitions for the study of music in Venezuela is untenable.”31 It is also commonly

believed outside of Venezuela that Abreu’s National Youth Orchestra was the first youth

orchestra in the country’s history, but this is not true either.32 In fact, Abreu’s orchestra built on

what several of these other youth orchestras had accomplished and inspired Abreu’s work in

multiple ways. As Baker argues, “Abreu’s National Youth Orchestra grew out of various

existing initiatives; what he contributed, according to several informants, was not so much vision

as managerial skill, a talent for persuasion, and money to pay the musicians.”33

What may actually have been the first youth orchestra in Venezuela was the Orquesta

Experimental de la Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela (The Experimental Orchestra of the

Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra) which was founded in 1970 in Caracas. Just like Abreu’s

National Youth Orchestra would later have, this orchestra’s primary goal was to develop young

Venezuelan orchestral players to eventually join the Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra, although

it was also seen as playing a social role as well, which may have influenced Abreu’s creation of

his orchestra’s identity. Pedroza claims that “One year after its birth, the Orquesta Experimental

30
Ludim Pedroza, "Of Orchestras, Mythos, and the Idealization of Symphonic Practice:
The Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela in the (Collateral) History of El Sistema," Latin American
Music Review 36, no. 1 (2015): 73.
31
Pedroza, “Of Orchestras, Mythos, and the Idealization of Symphonic Practice,” 74.
32
Tunstall’s book perpetuates this myth: “What [Abreu] had, in fact, was an orchestra—a
youth orchestra in a country where there had never been one before.” Tunstall, Changing Lives,
59.
33
Baker, El Sistema, 43.
12

appears to fulfill a promise of social ‘rescue’ and musical achievement for a new generation of

musicians, Venezuelans who would inspire others to create new orchestras in the country and

who would continue building a sense of national identity through them.”34 While Abreu’s

orchestra was not directly built on it, when the Orquesta Experimental folded around 1974,

Abreu recruited several of its players to be in his new orchestra.

Outside of Caracas, there was another youth orchestra that significantly influenced

Abreu’s. In 1975, the same year that Abreu founded the National Youth Orchestra, Venezuelan

arts advocate Juan Martínez founded the Orquesta Infantil de Carora (Children’s Orchestra of

Carora). Martínez had been aware of a youth orchestra that Chilean musician and educator Jorge

Peña founded in 1964 in La Serena, Chile which Carlson claims to be Latin America’s first

youth symphony orchestra.35 Peña’s orchestra saw itself as both a musical and social program,

with goals “to provide access to music for children from all socio-economic backgrounds and to

make Western art music performance a path out of poverty.”36 Peña’s project grew across Chile

as the Chilean government moved towards the political left, especially during the presidency of

Salvador Allende (1970-1973). But the Chilean coup of 1973 toppled Allende’s government and

installed the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Peña’s project was then branded as

socialist and Peña himself was killed. Yet three of his colleagues, Sergio Miranda, Pedro

Vargas, and Hernán Jérez, survived and were exiled to Venezuela where Martínez hired them to

run his orchestra in Carora.

34
Pedroza, “Of Orchestras, Mythos, and the Idealization of Symphonic Practice,” 82-83.
35
Carlson, “The Story of Carora,” 65.
36
Carlson, 65.
13

As Carlson notes, Abreu’s National Youth Orchestra and Martínez’s orchestra in Carora

were frequent collaborators. They performed joint concerts, Caroran students were welcome at

Abreu’s seminarios (intensive rehearsal sessions lasting entire weekends), and several students

came with Abreu’s orchestra on their 1976 trip to Scotland.37 This close association seems to

have influenced El Sistema in several different ways. In 1977, the organizers of the Carora

orchestra created a conservatory in the city, which Carlson argues can be considered an early

version of El Sistema’s núcleos.38 Lessons in Carora were in group settings and inspired by the

Suzuki method, and Peña’s ideas about how an orchestra could be used for social development

were continued in Carora. As early as 1977 in an interview with V. Tejera, Martínez explained

that in Carora “We teach them with love…Our classes are collective…Through learning music,

these students receive a spiritual formation that will benefit them in their lives. The ability to

concentrate on their orchestra parts also helps them concentrate on their schoolwork.”39 As

Baker argues, later in the history of El Sistema these ideas would be repeated by Abreu to

describe El Sistema, so it is very likely he adopted these ideas, at least in part, from Martínez and

the Chilean teachers. Eventually, as El Sistema grew, the Carora orchestra was incorporated into

the national system of youth orchestras.

The Political Connections and Skills of José Antonio Abreu

Both a musician and a politician, José Antonio Abreu is a very rare breed of leader and he

has excelled in both worlds. He earned degrees in both music, studying composition and organ

37
Carlson, 69.
38
Carlson, 69.
39
Quoted in Carlson, 70.
14

performance at the national conservatory, as well as a Ph.D. in petroleum economics from the

Andrés Bello Catholic University. In 1964 at the young age of twenty-five, he served five years

as a deputy in the Venezuelan Congress where he worked as an economist for the central

budgeting office, gaining intimate knowledge of the government’s budgeting processes,

acquiring many political contacts, and learning the political structure of the country, all of which

became extremely useful in the future for obtaining funding and support for his music program.

Fourteen years after founding the National Youth Orchestra, Abreu officially reentered politics

when he served as the Minister of Culture and President of the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura

(National Council for Culture), or CONAC, a position he held for four years (1989-93).40 All

this political experience gave him so many political contacts that he has been described as “an

octopus extending tentacles throughout Venezuelan political and business circles, squeezing his

contacts for support and throttling potential threats.”41 As a former senior figure in El Sistema

explained, “One of the things that has enabled José Antonio to survive all these years through all

these governments is his clear understanding of the political structure of the country, above all

what its defects are and what its faults are and how it works, in order to be able to manipulate the

political process, by means of those weaknesses, to the benefit of the orchestra.”42

In both his position as the director of El Sistema and the President of CONAC, Abreu has

been described as “a genius at securing funds.”43 In the early years, the fact that his National

40
While most sources give these dates, Tunstall claims that he first took this position in
1983. Tunstall, Changing Lives, 82.
41
Baker, El Sistema, 26.
42
Baker, 86.
43
Baker, 32.
15

Youth Orchestra gave scholarships and could afford international tours convinced many players

from the other existing youth orchestras, which were all unpaid, to switch ensembles.44 In

particular, Baker calls him “a master of securing subsidy for culture from noncultural sources.”45

When he was first able to gain federal funding for his program back in the late 1970s, he

convinced the government to place it under not the Ministry of Culture or the Ministry of

Education, but the Ministry of Family which was a division of the larger Ministry of Health and

Social Development.46 Hollinger argues that this helped define the program and give it

credibility as a social rather than simply a cultural or musical program, and that this likely

contributed to its ability to survive and thrive through different governmental regimes, as, she

points out, “Social programs remain consistently more popular than cultural and artistic

programs.”47 Just as significantly, this also opened the program to much more funding, from

larger government ministries as well as international social development funds, most importantly

a massive $500 million in loans from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World

Bank between 2008 and 2013. This is even more impressive considering the worldwide

difficulties of arts funding in recent years. As Baker puts it, “At a time when orchestras around

the world are facing cuts, El Sistema has secured ever larger state subsidies and development

bank loans; the program’s budget rose on average 24 percent per year from 2000.”48

44
Baker, 65-66.
45
Baker, 321.
46
Tunstall claims that it was placed under the Ministry of Youth initially, not the
Ministry of Family. Tunstall, Changing Lives, 69.
47
Hollinger, “Instrument of Social Reform,” 130.
48
Baker, El Sistema, 166-67.
16

Abreu is also” a master of spectacle”49 and understands the power of exceptional live

musical performance to move emotions and influence people’s actions. Instead of presenting

facts, data, or stories to show the impact of his program, Abreu primarily uses musical

performance to win over support. This is what drives his fundraising strategy that Tunstall calls

“Show, then ask.”50 As Bolivia Bottome, the head of Institutional Development and

International Relations at El Sistema, explains, “In Venezuela, we don’t show numbers—we do a

lot of large showcase demonstrations to fundraise. We sit people down and make them listen to

a huge orchestra of children playing Mahler 2 and they fund us.”51 In the early years of El

Sistema, Abreu used a technique of “ambushing politicians with surprise concerts in unlikely

places” to get politicians’ attention.52 He has given orchestral performances at the inauguration

of every new president, no matter their political beliefs, to command their attention and begin

winning their support. During the rapid growth of the program across the country during the

1980s, Abreu would target specific key politicians’ home towns as places to create new

orchestras. As a former senior figure in El Sistema explained,

If we knew that there was a deputy in the national congress who was on the finance
committee and who could have an important bearing on the foundation’s budget, then we
would have the political aim of creating an orchestra in that deputy’s home town so as to
win him over and commit him [to the project], so that he would look favorably on the
proposed budgets when he came to take part in the congressional commission.53

49
Baker, 321.
50
Tunstall, Changing Lives, 76.
51
Quoted in Baker, El Sistema, 3-4.
52
Baker, 4.
53
Baker, 85.
17

This strategy even extended to orchestras frequently performing in local state legislatures

directly.54 As David Ascanio, a pianist who taught for many years at El Sistema’s central

conservatory, describes it, “[Abreu] would say to everyone, ‘Just come to the concert, then

decide if you want to support it.’ And of course, what happened, every time? The energy of the

concerts was so unique, so original—so unimaginable, really—that people would say, ‘…I have

to help them.’”55 Overall, this strategy of Abreu’s has been wildly successful.

Another extraordinary skill of Abreu’s is his ability to adapt the program, or at least to

portray it in different ways, to satisfy the needs and desires of whichever political regime is

currently in power. As Tunstall points out, “His political and diplomatic acuity have [sic]

enabled him to gain the backing and material support of seven consecutive Venezuelan

governments, ranging across the political spectrum from center-right to the current leftist

presidency of Hugo Chávez.”56 Baker adds that, “Abreu, however, did not just survive but

thrived off the seismic shift from forty years of social democratic governments to Chávez’s

socialist revolution.”57

For Abreu, the most important thing has been the survival and continuation of his

program, much more important than any personal political convictions he holds, and he has done

whatever has been necessary to please politicians and to gain their support. According to former

54
Tunstall, Changing Lives, 76.
55
Tunstall, 76.
56
Tunstall, 84. When Tunstall’s book was published in 2012, Chávez was still president.
Since his death in March 2013 at the age of 58, his handpicked successor Nicolás Maduro has led
the country.
57
Baker, El Sistema, 34.
18

El Sistema participant Luigi Mazzocchi, El Sistema leadership has even directed participants on

who to vote for “based solely on the likelihood of gaining or losing funding for the program.”58

As mentioned earlier, the history of El Sistema, especially during the 1980s and 90s, is

quite unclear. As Baker points out, “After 42 years, hundreds of millions of dollars of funding,

and the achievement of global fame, there is still no written history of El Sistema.”59 Chefi

Borzacchini’s book Venezuela en el cielo de los escenarios comes closest, but Baker points out

that it says little about El Sistema in the 1980s and 90s and is not comprehensive or even linear.60

This lack of a written history may be a conscious political strategy of Abreu’s. Baker states that

“a high-level informant explained, ‘José Antonio [Abreu] doesn’t like things to be written down

because then it is hard to adjust to the political interests of the moment.’”61

The most significant example of this, as argued by Baker, happened in the mid-1990s

when leftist President Hugo Chávez came to power and El Sistema, under Abreu’s leadership,

“was rebranded as a social rather than musical institution.”62 Baker argues that Abreu is “a

profoundly conservative figure who moved in the highest right-wing circles,” so when the

ideologically opposed Chávez, who had “zero interest in classical music” became president,

Abreu was faced with a crisis as to how to win the president’s favor and ensure the survival of

58
Lawrence Scripp, “The Need to Testify: A Venezuelan Musician’s Critique of El
Sistema and his Call for Reform,” ResearchGate, (January 11, 2016): 47.
59
Baker, “Writing El Sistema’s History,” El Sistema Blog, accessed October 30, 2019,
http://www.geoffbakermusic.wordpress.com/el-sistema-the-system/el-sistema-blog/writing-el-
sistemas-history/
60
Chefi Borzacchini, Venezuela en el cielo de los escenarios (Caracas, Venezuela:
Fundación BANCARIBE, 2010.)
61
Baker, El Sistema, 6.
62
Baker, “Writing El Sistema’s History.”
19

his program. 63 The solution was to claim that what had been a musical training program had

actually been a social program from its very beginning, and this was possible precisely because

there was no written history of the program to refute this.64 This strategy proved enormously

successful, as “Chávez’s distaste for Abreu was eventually overcome by the appeal of the project

itself, above all the social benefits that it claimed to offer the president’s key political

constituency, the urban poor.”65 Not only did this strategy win over Chávez, but it opened the

program up to more funding bodies dedicated to social development, such as the Intra-American

Development Bank, the World Bank, and UNICEF, which has proved extremely lucrative for the

program. Abreu’s ties with Chávez grew very close, as he “acted as a kind of cultural

ambassador and moved steadily closer to the center of power, eventually operating out of the

Office of the President.”66

Additionally, Abreu is an extremely charismatic speaker and rhetorician. Filled with

great aphorisms that are often repeated by the teachers, students, and supporters of El Sistema,

63
Baker, El Sistema, 34-35.
64
While Baker claims that the idea of social action through music came to Abreu from a
visit to the Brazilian program Ação Social pela Música (Social Action Through Music) during a
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra tour to Brazil during the mid-1990s (Baker, El Sistema, 165),
my own 2013 interview with director of the Brazilian program, Fiorella Solares, seems to
contradict this claim. According to Solares, her husband, the Brazilian conductor David
Machado, was very good friends with Abreu and worked frequently with El Sistema, conducting
the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in its first performances of Richard Strauss and Gustav
Mahler and teaching conducting classes. Abreu wanted to expand his program to other South
American countries and convinced Machado to start the program, which has called Ação Social
pela Música since its inception in 1994. (Fiorella Solares, personal communication, April 4,
2013.) This seems to suggest that Machado got the idea for social action through music
education from Abreu and not the other way around. As mentioned earlier, Abreu was likely
aware of this idea from the work of Jorge Peña via Juan Martínez’s youth orchestra in Carora.
65
Baker, El Sistema, 35.
66
Baker, 34.
20

such as “culture for the poor should never be poor culture,” Baker argues that the universal

acceptance of these sayings “seems to ward off proper examination,” of Abreu’s program. 67

Baker also refers to Abreu’s “legendary oratorical skill” and how he has been described as a

“snake charmer,” noting that “People say that if you get into an elevator with Abreu, he will have

persuaded you to do something for him by the time you reach your floor.”68

Conclusions

As Gustavo Dudamel explains, “There is one simple reason that the Sistema is so

successful. It is the Maestro.”69 While he is certainly correct that Abreu’s political, fundraising,

oratorical, and persuasion skills, along with his many political connections, has been the most

significant reason the program has been successful, the era of high oil prices that it began in and

the impact and influence of previously existing Venezuelan youth orchestras have also played a

significant role.

If these are the main elements that fueled El Sistema’s success, did Projeto Espiral lack

them? As Baker notes, “In Venezuela, large-scale projects started by one government are often

abandoned by the next.”70 Not limited to Venezuela, Projeto Espiral suffered this exact fate,

typical of so many governmental projects in Latin America. While Brazil had experienced an

“economic miracle” with sustained GNP growth of ten percent between 1968 and 1973, by 1976,

when Projeto Espiral began, the government went into debt, inflation had reached forty percent

67
Baker, 11.
68
Baker, 39.
69
Tunstall, Changing Lives, 89.
70
Baker, El Sistema, 34.
21

and “the ‘miracle’ [was] turned upside down: from economic wonder it…into economic

disaster.”71 I have also found no evidence of any youth orchestras in Brazil prior to the

beginning of Projeto Espiral, although it is possible that some did exist. Most significantly, is

the fact that Marlos Nobre was not a politician and did not want to change his program to please

whomever was in power. Nobre recounts that he contacted Abreu after he was interrogated by

Figueiredo’s regime:

At that time Abreu said to me—I had contacted him about how to continue the project—
and he said you shouldn't bind the project to the Ministry of Education or Culture. In
Venezuela he tied it to social development…But he told me another thing, and that is that
he is very political. He had the ability to stay and work with a regime on the right or the
left. He is very politically able, and he said to me that he doesn't do it for the regime or
the project, he does it because it is necessary. This is our difference, because I had
ideological principles and I couldn't samba to agree with politicians. I said to him, “I'm
not political or a politician, and even more I am a man of culture and music.” For me, the
music is more important than politics, and he said, “Then you are going to suffer the
consequences.”72

Of course, Nobre’s program did “suffer the consequences.” After being fired as director of the

National Institute of Music, he was actually thankful to be relieved of his responsibilities because

he was able to devote his energies to composing, his primary vocation, again. “If you look at my

catalogue, I didn’t write a single work during that time [when he was director of Projeto Espiral].

I was just about to explode,” he explained. “This year, 1979, was the happiest year of my life,

personally, because I started to dedicate myself to my own work.”73

71
Theotonio Dos Santos, “Brazil: Unmasking The Miracle,” The North American
Congress on Latin America, September 25, 2007, https://nacla.org/article/brazil-unmasking-
miracle
72
(Marlos Nobre, personal communication, November 2, 2013). My translation from
Portuguese.
73
(Marlos Nobre, personal communication, November 2, 2013). My translation from
Portuguese.
22

What would have happened if Projeto Espiral was still around today? While there are

now several newer music education programs in Brazil that have been inspired by El Sistema,

such as Orquestrando a Vida (Orchestrating Life) created in 1996 in the city of Campos dos

Goytacazes, the Núcleos Estaduais de Orquestras Juvenis e Infantis da Bahia (The Youth and

Children’s Orchestra Centers of Bahia), or NEOJIBA, created in 2007 in the state of Bahia, and

the Programa de Inclusão Através da Música e das Artes (Program of Inclusion through Music

and the Arts), or PRIMA, begun in 2012 in the state of Paraíba, Nobre believes that Brazil

“would have had a super musical potential, much larger than Venezuela,” if the program had

continued over the past forty years.74 As one newspaper article put it, “If Projeto Espiral had

continued in the way it was created, Brazil would certainly have a strong culture of youth

orchestras today and would no longer have to import musicians from abroad, as is still our

practice today.”75

74
(Marlos Nobre, personal communication, November 2, 2013). My translation from
Portuguese.
75
“’Kabbalah’, de Marlos Nobre, abre festival em Caracas,” Movimento.com, May 10,
2012, https://www.movimento.com/2012/05/kabbalah-de-marlosnobre-abre-festival-em-caracas/
My translation from Portuguese.
23

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