Sad news: Sistema founder Abreu is dead

Sad news: Sistema founder Abreu is dead


norman lebrecht

March 24, 2018

The death has been announced of Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of Venezuela’s El Sistema of music education, which he turned into a global brand.

He was 78 and had been frail from diabetes and other complications for more than a decade.

He lived long enough to see the regime he supported turn against his protege Gustavo Dudamel and punish El Sistema by cancelling its orchestral overseas tours.

He remained a supporter of the oppresive regime. His death was announced on television by President Maduro.

UPDATE: Did anyone really know Abreu?


  • James says:

    Whatever his faults, Abreu was a towering figure in the history of classical music. Hundreds of thousands of children passed through El Sistema, changing many of their lives forever. He will be deeply missed by all those who knew him.

      • Anon says:

        You don’t think what? Look, not all children in Venezuela had the opportunity to grow up in a well to do upper middle class family, or move to the US in early childhood, funds for paying for music education never being a problem. Maybe you should get down from your high horse once.
        What Abreu’s El Sistema meant for Venezuela’s youth can not be measured high enough. To do it in such a politically unstable country is even more of an accomplishment.
        United armchair ignorants of the west: shut up!

        • Troy van Leewuen says:

          Venezuela’s youth has had access to free music education since the opening of the Escuela Superior de Música José Ángel Lamas, which functions under that name since 1916, but had already been functioning in some form since 1849. That is not even counting the many different conservatories that have been providing professional music education from way before El Sistema was created.
          Not to diminish the achievements of El Sistema, but musical education in Venezuela has always been available to whoever wanted to have acces to it

          • Kike says:

            Wow Troy, what a very miss-informed thing to say. Escuela Superior de Música José Ángel Lamas in Caracas, only caters to 1,000 advanced students, aged 8 to 30. Admission to “la Lamas” requires an audition, and students must live in Caracas, which is something that most people from other cities and towns can’t afford. Also, its focus is on classical music.

            El Sistema is not perfect, but their network of orchestras and choirs covers all 24 states and 335 districts in Venezuela, is open to beginners, including children and young people with special needs, and allows participants to learn music of many genres and styles, especially Venezuelan folk music that was never allowed in “la Lamas”.

        • enemigopublico says:

          He won’t be deeply missed by all those who knew him. As the article says (did you read it?), he inspired loathing as well as love – particularly from those who had to work with or near him. He trampled on a lot of people in Venezuela. But the united armchair ignorants of the west don’t know that, so they love him.

        • The View from America says:


    • Linda McDougall says:

      Thank you for this, James. People with resources, who know little of the horrors facing children in Caracas especially, will trash Abreu for not abandoning them to make a statement against the government. Both he and Dudamel were between a rock and a hard place as Chavez funded El Sistema 90%. It was a case of Sophie’s Choice, and I’m afraid I’d have stuck with doing something to change over 500,000 youngsters’ lives rather than leave them on the streets. We have no right to judge him as the good he’s done is lasting. I don’t care about the negativity – I’ve followed the programme religiously for years and again, James, I thank you for your courage in defending him. And as well, we thank all of you who stand up for Abreu, and you can see what happened the minute Dudamel said something against Madero: end of the funding and dependence on private donors in a bankrupt country.

  • enemigopublico says:

    More reading matter on José Antonio Abreu (the real one, not the myth):

    • Anon says:

      The man just died. Do you have no shame and no decency?
      And, show us any public figure that didn’t have some character flaws. Not even Mother Theresa was free of them.
      Keep your hatred for yourself.

      • Anon says:

        You’re right. No hay muerto malo ni novia fea. Let’s carry on spreading false information and feeding the myth.

        • Reynaldo says:

          For someone that seems so concerned with the truth, your reliance on Geoff Baker as a source about Abreu is quite ironic. After reading his book about El Sistema, I have zero respect for his methods and intentions, as I point out here:

          • Geoff Baker says:

            Reynaldo, you conveniently ignore the Inter-American Development Bank study in 2016 that corroborated the findings of my book about El Sistema’s demographics.

            According to the study, the estimated poverty rate among the El Sistema entrants was 16.7%, while the rate for the states in which they lived was 46.5%.

            This is very close to what I wrote in my book.

          • Geoff Baker says:

            You also neglect to mention that the articles linked above are not by me, but by the well-known Venezuelan investigative journalists Roger Santodomingo and Rafael Rivera. Do you also have zero respect for their methods and intentions?

            Do you also have zero respect for the methods and intentions of the IDB evaluators Eva Estrada and Ana Lucía Frega?

            Or is the issue in fact that, as a spokesperson for Sistema England, you have zero respect for anyone who does real research on El Sistema rather than regurgitating press releases?

          • Anon says:

            @ Geoff Baker: re your emphasis on poverty rate:
            there are other statistics interesting here as well, for instance that 54% of the mothers enjoyed tertiary education of at least one year or more. Probably a rate much higher than the country’s average as well.

            Which hints at an ambitious, aspirational parental home in educational aspects to be more relevant to a child being promoted by the parents to take part in El Sistema or not.
            Which correlates nicely to pretty much all children learning classical music.

            It can’t be denied, that El Sistema obviously helped big time to enable more people from not so well to do families to enjoy a thorough music education, even though probably not to abolish class divides completely, but that’s a straw man anyway here.

            But your articles, their wording, show an obvious bias by you to show another result.
            You create the impression, that you have a certain agenda with this topos.

          • Reynaldo says:

            Sorry, Geoff, but I have no intention of enduring another read through your book just to flush out all the inaccuracies, cultural misunderstandings and plain old gossip that you collected.

            You went to Venezuela having already authored a book about how Spanish missionaries used European classical music as a mechanism of colonialization and control, so it is not a stretch to think that you had an agenda from day one.

            You seemed keen to interview every single person that had mud to sling against Abreu and El Sistema, and you didn’t seem interested at all in hearing from parents about the effect that El Sistema has on their children.

            You clearly went to a handful of nucleos and came back with a very limited and biased understanding of El Sistema and what it does for people in Venezuela. And your perception that kids in El Sistema were middle class because they had Blackberries and Facebook was naive and ignorant.

            Those of us that care about El Sistema know the very real problems it has, and would welcome any suggestions on how to make it better. But the only logical conclusion to your ‘research’ is that El Sistema should not exist and those children should stop playing European music.

            Now that Abreu is dead, Maduro and his thugs will probably get their way and destroy El Sistema just like they have destroyed everything else. And I suspect you will be pleased. Good for you.

          • Geoff Baker says:

            @Anon: yes, I have an agenda. To present a more accurate picture of El Sistema. In my book, I suggested that the poverty rate of Sistema entrants was much lower than had been claimed. The IDB study confirmed that two years later.

            @Reynaldo: See above. Why are you in denial about this study by the IDB, El Sistema’s major funder? Why do you repost your blog from 2014, when you’re main point has been proven wrong? And how do you account for all the other evidence that has subsequently emerged? It’s not a question of re-reading my book – it’s a question of looking at work by other people. But you clearly have zero interest in ascertaining the truth about El Sistema or following the unfolding story. But then you are a Sistema employee. That’s what I call an agenda.

          • Reynaldo says:

            You must mean ‘former Sistema employee’, and by that I mean Sistema England. I was never employed or funded by El Sistema, as you can see in my public LinkedIn profile. But as someone who worked closely with (not for) El Sistema, I do know them very well and I will raise my voice every time I see someone quoting your mediocre research.

            When you wrote your book, the only data that was available was the 2007 survey, which was conducted in 15 nucleos out of less than 200, in eight states. That survey estimated that 11% of Sistema kids were middle class, 36% came from poverty and 53% came from extreme poverty. You chose to ignore that data because you saw kids with Blackberries in the nucleo that you visited. Had you been to one of the nucleos were clearly there is a majority of kids from the slums, say Los Chorros, would you have still assumed they were middle class?

            The IDB study from 2016 was conducted in 16 nucleos out of more than 400, and in only five states. Honestly, I do find it less representative, but I am sure that you don’t because it confirms your perception.

            The main point of my 2014 blog was not about poverty rates. It was about the fact that you were attempting to build a full picture of El Sistema based on a very limited experience, not enough cultural understanding of Venezuela, interview subjects that appeared to be selected only based on their interest to speak ill of El Sistema, and a preconceived notion that Latin American kids should not be playing European music in orchestras.

            All of those objections still stand.

            I will leave you to have the last word, if you so wish.

          • Geoff Baker says:

            You continue to ignore all the subsequent studies. And you dismiss the 2016 IDB study – the largest, most detailed, most recent, and most transparent – on the basis that you “find it less representative.” Wow, how objective!

            The only reason your objections still stand is that you refuse to look at multiple scholarly and journalistic accounts that back up my research. How do you explain Santodomingo? Rivera? Estrada? Frega? And many more. Are they all part of a 30-year conspiracy orchestrated by me, which began 17 years before I visited Venezuela for the first time?

            You seem to believe that having a PhD in Latin American musicology and a book on Latin American music that won the Robert Stevenson Award of the American Musicological Society for “outstanding scholarship in Iberian music” should count against me. Only in the upside-down world of El Sistema!

            I will leave the last word to Luigi Mazzocchi, a highly successful former Sistema student, and the music education scholar Lawrence Scripp:

            Their independent attempt to corroborate my research concluded that, far from demonstrating “very limited experience, not enough cultural understanding of Venezuela,” it hit the nail on the head.

      • Linda McDougall says:

        Thank you, Anon. Mother Theresa was laden with unacceptable ideas – for me at least. Does this mean my self-centred ego must trash the remarkable work she did? Isn’t it stunning how so manny prople must denounce anyone who does good in the world! Again, I thank you for your rational mind. By the way, films like “Edward Scissorhands”, “Dogville” and even the story of Christ, all point out that theme…how we humans will bite the hand that feeds us.

  • Anon says:

    @ Geoff Baker: you have apolitical agenda, truth is not your aspiration.

    “According to the study, the estimated poverty rate among the El Sistema entrants was 16.7%, while the rate for the states in which they lived was 46.5%.”

    Now instead of looking at the data further, as a serious scholar would do, you draw your preempt conclusion instead.
    All your diatribes are one big bias against El Sistema.

    I’m sure there are fractions in the IDB, the US being the major capital holder, who did not want to dedicate anymore money to the Venezuelan youth program.

    • Geoff Baker says:

      That is the conclusion of the IDB study. What is it with you people and evidence?

      As for looking at the data further, look out for a peer-reviewed article in the British Journal of Music Education later this year.

      • Anon says:

        I have no horse in this race either side. But your bias is obvious to any neutral reader.
        I wouldn’t trust the IDB study per se, since IDB is far from being an independent entity to do such a research. Apparently the data is not representative. It’s complicated.

        • Geoff Baker says:

          You’re absolutely right – the IDB is far from independent. It is heavily biased in favour of El Sistema, which it has funded lavishly since the late 1990s. The last thing the IDB wants is evidence circulating that suggests that funding was unjustified. Which is why their research is worth a good look.

          The bias is evident in the way they spun the results subsequent to the publication of the academic report:

        • Geoff Baker says:

          Perhaps you don’t know how academic peer-review works. You submit your research, and it is read by at least two neutral, anonymous reviewers. If they consider it to be biased, then they will reject it, or demand it be rewritten.

          What you really mean is that you don’t like what I found. You’re not alone there. But there’s lots of corroborating evidence, if you care to investigate the links above.

          • Anon says:

            You haven’t picked up my point for instance about the high percentage of mothers with academic backgrounds. Not necessarily wealthy though. Which would hint toward a multitude of factors, not only desperately trying to disprove El Sistema’s claim of reaching out to poor children.
            Your statistics are flawed, only half the truth is sometimes a big lie. it’s common in academia, I give you that.

    • Geoff Baker says:

      You say my statistics are flawed. They are not my statistics, they are the IDB’s, and you have yet to explain how they are flawed.

      As to your point above “54% of the mothers enjoyed tertiary education of at least one year or more. Probably a rate much higher than the country’s average as well.

      Which hints at an ambitious, aspirational parental home in educational aspects to be more relevant to a child being promoted by the parents to take part in El Sistema or not.”


      This correlates very closely to the conclusion in my book two years earlier, that El Sistema was not – at a systemic level – rescuing Venezuela’s most vulnerable children from a background of drugs, crime, or prostitution, but rather recruiting mainly from lower-middle-class and aspirational working-class families who took care of their children and were invested in their education.

      In other words, the statistic you mention does NOT support the media and publicity myth.

      • Anon says:

        You are arguing against a self created straw man here. El Sistema not ONLY did that, but ALSO.
        It still seems mysterious, why you are so ambitious, to destroy a ‘myth’ as you say, which many of us with a rational and open mind not even see in the first place.

        I think we can find common ground, that El Sistema allowed cultural participation also for economically lower classes, that wasn’t possible in that quantity and quality before, can’t we? To which degree that was the case, we can certainly argue.

        • Geoff Baker says:

          “El Sistema allowed cultural participation also for economically lower classes, that wasn’t possible in that quantity and quality before”


          But that’s not what El Sistema was sold to the world as. If you follow mainstream and social media reports and discussions on El Sistema, as I do, you’ll see that huge numbers of people – including many journalists – believe that El Sistema is literally rescuing hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s poorest children from a life of crime, drugs, or prostitution. That is false.

          A lot of people don’t want to know that, so they take aim at the messenger.

          • Anon says:

            No, it’s not proven to be either false or true. It’s a bit more complex than that and the IDB study you like to cite is not representative for all we know.

            But, tell us, what drives your ambition to “spill the truth” as you see it about El Sistema, to what end?
            Do you want to discourage parents and children to send their children to such programs?
            Do you want to discourage public spending for classical music education?
            Do you want to discredit socialist regimes at all costs, even at the cost of educational programs for children?
            You have envy that a socialist regime has something, that is maybe better than what other regimes ideologically more in line with your beliefs have, regarding classical music education for the masses?

          • Geoff Baker says:

            “It’s a bit more complex than that and the IDB study you like to cite is not representative for all we know.”

            That is a vague and groundless assertion, not an argument. Why would the IDB publish figures that undercut its long-term support for El Sistema if it did not consider them to be representative? Why would it conclude that its own study “highlights the challenges of targeting interventions towards vulnerable groups of children in the context of a voluntary social program”?

            If it were using the study to pull the plug on the program, that would provide a possible answer. But it isn’t. Quite the opposite. It has spun insignificant positive findings into significant ones.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Anon. I am afraid you don’t understand academic research and how it happens and what it is doing. The research is merely trying to describe the facts of what El Sistema is actually achieving, using the best evidence that is available (by all means, collect better evidence if you can). Understanding the programme is surely central if one wants to judge it. It is then up to you and anyone else to assess whether what it is achieving is good or bad, or whether there are things that could be changed to make it better. Personally I am not surprised that, given the evidence, the programme is mainly educating middle-class and ambitious working class kids, and I don’t see why this should be viewed as something bad.

  • Sue says:

    Real innovators and entrepreneurs are often clever but not very nice people. “Nice” people work for the the public service and its institutions, pontificate plenty, repeat ad nauseum Leftist pieties but never put their money where their gobs are.

    Vale Abreu.

    • Sharon says:

      We DO put our money where our gobs are which is why daily I receive fund raising letters from left leaning organizations. This is part of the reason why we lefties sometimes get so upset when we are attacked.
      I have not personal (as opposed to theoretical interest) but as someone who has studied government programs and policy in academia I believe there are really three questions that need to be asked
      1. If the purpose is to help increase the academic skills of low income children and youth and lowering juvenile delinquency (through increasing self discipline, focus, self esteem etc) is it succeeding in this goal?
      2. Is there definitely a politically feasible better use for the money?
      3. Given the answers to questions 1 and 2 is Venezuela better off with or without El Sistema?
      I used to be a contributor to Childreach (formerly Foster Parents Plan) one of those “sponsorship” programs of individual children in lesser developed countries. In order to be inclusive of everyone in the community they started enrolling every child willy nilly. They essentially stopped individual casework and instead did a couple of communal things like build soccer fields and have community forums for kids to talk about community issues. Several of my individual sponsees from the little the program knew about them were not doing too well. In fact, the kids (mid teens) were not even in school. They received no individual social work services or support.
      Few educational or social welfare schemes geared at low income people, provide as much bang for the buck, at least in the short and medium terms, and their advocates would hope for. Although it IS difficult to exclude people, especially children, it is sometimes better to provide more intensive services to fewer people whom one knows can profit by it, than to provide superficial or even non existent, except on paper, services to everyone.
      In any program of this type it is very frequently the kids who have the parents who have the time, energy, and sophistication to understand the value of cultural education and who are able to take the time to get the kids to the program who would be most likely to encourage their kids to participate. Others will be self excluded because a program that covers everyone is unable to provide the individual outreach and attention to keep those children from families that must expend most of their energy struggling to survive in the program and on track for practice, rehearsals, etc..
      It’s similar to the role of the Catholic parish or now charter schools in the low income neighborhoods in the United States or the 10 cents a day private schools in South Asia. Although these programs are supposed to serve the low income community the kids who take advantage of these schools are generally those whose families are a little better off than their neighbors and whose parents can spare a little tuition money as well as other expenses necessary to keep kids in school and who may care a little (or a lot) more about education.
      The same is true of the myriad of “economic opportunity” “upward bound” type programs that were popular in US universities in the nineteen sixties through eighties. They did not generally reach most who were the most deeply mired in the “culture of poverty” but they gave a lot of important breaks and made things a lot easier for those who were one or two levels above. Now that these programs for the most part no longer exist those who would have benefitted are not into higher education or are strapped by large student loans.
      Does the fact that the lowest income levels and the children with the most emotional, financial, and educational needs are de facto excluded make these programs failures? It depends if those who benefit by them end up raising the level of the neighborhood through staying and encouraging others or if they flee these neighborhoods. Only time will tell.

      • Geoff Baker says:

        That’s probably the best comment I’ve ever read on Slipped Disc.

        The picture you portray here is echoed by El Sistema, with its own funder (the IDB) estimating that the poverty rate among entrants was one-third that among wider society. This is entirely unsurprising if you see how El Sistema works and understand the dynamics that you describe.

        Though a few of the poorest and most vulnerable make it into the program, El Sistema is not set up either to target or to support them on a systemic level, so they are underrepresented.

        “It depends if those who benefit by them end up raising the level of the neighborhood through staying and encouraging others or if they flee these neighborhoods.”

        El Sistema is a highly centralised program that draws talent away from towns to cities, and from the provinces and neighbourhoods towards central Caracas and the elite, formerly touring ensembles that are based there.

        Is the program a failure? Well, it has never been proven to be a success, despite multiple attempts to do so. And that was when it was the ascendancy. Now it’s in freefall, like the rest of the country.

        • Sharon says:

          Thank you for saying that I “made the best comment”

          • Geoff Baker says:

            You’re welcome. Any chance you could either post a couple of links to relevant academic studies here, or email them to me? I’d really like to read more in this area.

      • Geoff Baker says:

        1. If the purpose is to help increase the academic skills of low income children and youth and lowering juvenile delinquency (through increasing self discipline, focus, self esteem etc) is it succeeding in this goal?

        Short answer: no. The IDB study suggests a systemic bias away from the poor and little sign of positive effects (or none if you use a standard significance level).

        2. Is there definitely a politically feasible better use for the money?

        Politically feasible is a subjective call. But around 80% of Venezuelans are losing weight due to the shortage of food. Hospitals are in dire straits and there is a chronic shortage of medicines. Meanwhile, El Sistema is nearing completion of a $500 million USD music centre.

        • Anon says:

          1. no it’s not the purpose, it’s a potential side effect.
          Little sign of positive effects? How about getting a thorough classical music education. That’s not a positive effect by itself? What is a positive effect then?

          No El Sistema is not “targeting” the poor, as far as we can tell. You still need to be ambitious and your parents must support you. Pretty much like for anyone who wants to get serious in classical music. Duh…

          But what El Sistema did, is taking the money factor out of the picture for all those families, that could not afford a private music education. They still need ambition and perseverance though. Which explains why not the poorest might be represented in equal quota as per capita.

          What’s your point, really? What is it that you are actually trying to prove?
          You make no sense.

          • Barry Guerrero says:

            I agree. Enough of this pissing match – it serves no purpose. Perhaps this could be a case of two things being equally true, simultaneously. Regardless, the bottom line is that Abreu has passed away. What will happen in Venezuela remains to be seen.

          • Geoff Baker says:

            If you’re genuinely interested in finding out, you could start by reading the book, 20-odd academic articles by numerous authors, and 100-plus blog posts on the topic.

            And no, two things cannot be equally true simultaneously. The poverty rate of Sistema entrants cannot be both 16.7% and 90%.

          • Anon says:

            Geoff Baker, when you stop the straw man arguments, one could discuss like adults. Otherwise you are just spreading propaganda.
            90% come from where, who said when and where that 90% of El Sistema participants come from families below poverty line?
            What’s your point, your objective, in your anti-El-Sistema diatribes?
            I can only conjure, that it is politically driven propaganda.

          • Anon says:

            And yes, two things can be equally true simultaneously. And many more.
            Apples are a fruit. Oranges are orange. You see how it works, Professor Baker?

          • Geoff Baker says:

            Also Deutsche Grammophon’s publicity material for El Sistema.
            In his TED prize speech, Abreu claimed that “the large majority of our children belong . . . to the most vulnerable strata of the Venezuelan population.”

            Right: time to end this conversation with someone who doesn’t even know the basics about El Sistema, and more importantly, doesn’t want to know. You’d be better off reading the extensive research on the topic, and I’d be better off writing more of it.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Yes, I agree with Geoff, a genuinely interesting comment. My take, for what it is worth, is these types of programmes will always be dominated by the kids of middle-class and ambitious working class parents. But I don’t really see why this should matter. This kids are enjoying a music education that they would not otherwise get, and some poorer children are probably benefitting as well. And these programmes need to enjoy widespread benefits if they are to get political support (highly targetted programmes find it hard to get such support).

        As for Geoff’s two comments: (1) assessing the effect on education and juvenile crime requires constructing a sensible counter-factual, and this isn’t simple; (2) the money could always be spent on something else; whether it would be better depends, somewhat on your objectives.

        Personally I find the claim that El Sistema should only be judged as a poverty reduction scheme rather silly, and it is unlikely to be a particularly good way of achieving this objective. But if the aim is to give music education to a large number of kids without the parents worrying about its cost, and that the kids have some fun while doing it, then it seems largely to have succeeded. And, incidently, the kids will have learnt some important life skills along the way.

  • Hernan says:

    The traitor Dudamel, corrupted by Hollywood, broke Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu’s heart. He should be fired.

  • Linda McDougall says:

    I’ve lived in Mexico, for twenty years, where even a “middle class” version of El Sistema failed due to the obvious, and I just want to thank all of you rational, intelligent people who refuse to trash the programme because it was available only for those with resources. Without your neutral and non-judgemental point of view, this discussion would be nothing more than a bunch of intellectuals trying to outdo one another with their expertise on social projects….what one called a pissing match. (As a Jungian psychotherapist, I quit all Jung pages on FB as the male element couldn’t stop correcting other’s entries) I know Abreu’s work extremely well, the choices that had to be made, and how much joy and purpose he brought to kids. I also am aware of the shadow side, but doubt very much that such luminaries as Claudio Abbado, Plácido Domingo and Simon Rattle, would have participated so much and who allowed their tears to be filmed as they were moved by the students’ work. Years ago, our orchestra conductor here in Guanajuato gave a copy of “Tocar y Luchar” to every one of the musicians, and so on.
    I write this as I’m very tired of the negativity of so-called critics who believe they could have done much better, who pretend to know the real suffering of Venezuela, the nightmare of Caracas…Again, you positive writers, I salute you. You are a force we need in the world, and I feel you truly understand the need and power of music to move mountains.