Yana Stainova is a fourth-year PhD student in anthropology at Brown University. Her research is positioned at the intersection of ethics, aesthetics, and violence. An abbreviated version of her prize-winning paper, “Social Fragility and the Sonorous Gift: the Social Resonance of Classical music in the Youth Orchestras of Venezuela’s El Sistema,” is featured below.
Nahia is from a slum in Caracas that she described as feo (ugly): “It’s very far away [from the center], it’s poor. People do drugs. Every time I walk home I am afraid of being assaulted.”
Nahia had become involved with music at an early age and told me that people in her neighborhood see her as a role model: “Seeing someone who does something with so much discipline makes you have a different vision of your own life.”
In her early teens, Nahia started teaching at an El Sistema music school in her neighborhood. “You begin with kids who behave violently, are defensive and aggressive, who live in a family environment full of drugs and arms. And after some time working with them, after a year, you see a change. You see the children give up drugs for an instrument, violent attitudes for participation in an orchestra.”
“How did you do it?”
“With love, respect, and willpower. Music ennobles the human spirit: it makes it richer in values.”
“What about the social impact?”
“I believe that it has repercussions on the masses. It also creates great individuals. And then the individuals reverberate in others. It is contagious.”
Nahia is a musician at El Sistema, a Venezuelan classical music program that aims to tackle socioeconomic marginalization by providing cost-free music education and musical instruments to half a million young people across the country. Founded in 1975 by Venezuelan musician and economist José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema has enjoyed continuous support from the oil-rich state, weathering a volatile political climate and seven changes in government. Venezuela struggles with socioeconomic inequality, political polarization, and some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Against this backdrop, El Sistema portrays the orchestra as a model and enactment of the ideal society and pulls together into a collaborative experience young people who are otherwise divided by socioeconomic and ideological differences. It emphasizes the humanistic qualities of music and the potential of an aesthetic form to nurture universal ethical sensibilities, understood as a social concern for and attentiveness to others.
Nahia’s story of teaching music echoes a sentiment embedded in El Sistema’s philosophy: that music humanizes people. As the director of one of the music schools told me in an interview, “Hands that have played a musical instrument are unlikely to later hold a gun.” In this context of precariousness, I conceive of music as what Clara Han has called “the silent gift,” a gesture of care that provides support in critical moments without acknowledging them explicitly. The gift is silent in order not to insult the receiver and preserve the “moral boundary between asking and begging for help” (Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile, 2012:87). Music takes the sonorous place of silence in the act of giving care with respect, what we see in the case of Nahia and her teaching in a violent social environment.
A similar sentiment was voiced by Demian, another musician: “I do it [teaching music] out of pure love. Or sometimes I do it as a challenge, you see? Like saying that yes, I can help them, there is always hope, there is always a second opportunity… [When you teach] you leave something that stays within that person. […] Part of me, part of my soul is in that person then. Because it’s about what one transmits. And then I am happy, simply happy. It is a sense of happiness that nothing else is capable of giving you.” Demian’s attentiveness to a student’s social vulnerability illustrates the sonorous gift, the gift of the soul as a “concealed acts of kindness” that acknowledges fragility yet does not recognize it explicitly (Han 2012:88).
The happiness that the sonorous gift brings to the giver recalls Elaine Scarry’s (On Beauty and Being Just 2001) description of how the sight of beauty leads to what she calls “radical decentering”: we cease to occupy the center of our own world, ceding our protagonist role to the beautiful object in our gaze. Scarry claims that radical decentering prompted by beauty provides an opportunity to experience intense pleasure at occupying an adjacent position in our own lives, an insight echoed in Nahia and Demian’s reflections on teaching. The admiration of another’s potential experienced and expressed through teaching substantiates and reinforces the human bonds formed in music. In teaching, fragility – both individual and social – comes to play an important role in the articulation and confirmation of interdependency. The one being taught is vulnerable prior to an honoring and recognition of her potentiality; the one teaching is made vulnerable through the gift of the soul, to use Demian’s description.
El Sistema is a relational network comprised of students, teachers, and parents, within which bonds of care are formed and expressed through music. As soon as a child is able to play, he or she is expected to teach younger children, creating a type of momentum that propels the program’s exponential growth. I think about music as a sonorous gift, which is circulated through playing in an orchestra and teaching, and trace how it allows people to reconfigure vulnerability into bonds of care. Belonging to a musical organization that provides scholarships and a secure environment for the collective practice and teaching of music mitigates the experience of precariousness caused by the pervasive violence and socioeconomic instability in the country. However, I also use the idea of the gift to illuminate how the heightened dependence on an institution in a context of social fragility shapes the sometimes stifling and volatile nature of care. On a macro level, the lens of the gift frames the relationship between El Sistema and the state. As the program reaches a historical peak of state financial support and related growth, I explore how El Sistema negotiates the tension between state patronage and independence of the state’s political and ideological grasp.
Ronda L Brulotte is the contributing editor for the Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas for future news stories.