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An El Sistema Controversy

0 Ann Drinan

Last November, Dr. Geoffrey Baker, a music lecturer at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College, published a book that is quite critical of the founder of the El Sistema movement in Venezuela, Dr. José Abreu, and the El Sistema program itself.

Baker El Sistema Book

Various reviews of Baker’s book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (Oxford University Press, 2014) indicate that Baker paints a very different picture of the El Sistema program than that commonly found in the press, citing authoritarianism, favoritism, and even sexual abuse. Baker spent a year researching in Venezuela and developed a very negative opinion of the program, in sharp contrast to almost everything written about it. In an article he wrote for the Guardian, summarizing key points from his book, Baker describes El Sistema as a “model of tyranny,” and states:

“Far from a revolutionary, Abreu is a man of conservative political and religious convictions. The “boot-camp” values that his project champions – discipline, obedience, order – are viewed askance by many progressive educationalists today, who prefer creativity and critical thinking. It’s ironic, then, that El Sistema has been championed internationally by the liberal cultural establishment.”

In a review of his book, Hannah Ellis-Petersen of The Guardian wrote that Baker:

“claimed that far from being the ‘beacon of social justice’ as it is portrayed all over the world, in Venezuela it is viewed as “a cult, a mafia and a corporation.”

In an interview in the Los Angeles Times with reporter David Ng, Baker describes a climate of fear:

“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.”

In the winter 2015 issue of Symphony magazine, Eric Booth, an El Sistema expert in the USA, takes issue with Baker’s book and his opinions about El Sistema. There are now almost 100 El Sistema-inspired programs in the United States, with more starting up all the time. Eric Booth is the publisher of The Ensemble, a monthly newsletter about the U.S. El Sistema movement.

“Baker’s goal is not to present a balanced picture of El Sistema, but rather to ‘provide a counterweight to the official story that has dramatically skewed the scales.’ Throughout he refers to his work as ‘research,’ but his methodology is aggressively one-sided, nearly devoid of named sources, lacking any statistical data, and filled with attacks of many kinds, including ax-to-grind chapters objecting to orchestras in general and debunking all standard music education.”

Point by point, Booth debunks Baker’s accusations, citing statistical studies, and many other books and reports about the program in Venezuela that differ markedly from Baker’s portrayal. In particular, he refutes Baker’s assertion that the program doesn’t attract very poor children, and he vehemently defends Dr. Abreu against Baker’s “character attack.”

He closes his essay with the following:

“It is ironic that the general view of the worldwide Sistema movement emphasizes El Sistema’s generosity: ‘Come see our work, take whatever you like; and transform it to suit the needs of the children in your country.'”

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