It’s no secret that “culture”, as perceived by those that matter, is made by and for an elite. The Oscars are a harsh reminder of this: a 2012 study revealed that the Academy Awards electorate is 94% white and 77% male, with a large majority over the age of 60. Blacks and Hispanics count for some 2% of Academy members each (to put this in perspective, results of USA’s 2011 census record 13% black and 17% Hispanic population).
Last week I had my first “in situ” experience of Venezuela’s El Sistema, a social music programme that I’ve twittered on aboutelsewhere. In celebration of the programme’s 38th year, pianist Yuja Wang made an appearance alongside Gustavo Dudamel, perhaps Venezuela’s best-known musical export.
The concert itself was absolutely outstanding, closing with four encores complete with standing ovations. But equally impressive – if possible – was the diversity within the feisty audience that packed out the auditorium. Waiting in the block-long queue to receive my (free) ticket, I was reminded of the opening verse of Calle 13’s “No hay nadie como tú”:
En el mundo hay gente bruta y astuta
Hay vírgenes y prostitutas
Ricos pobres clase media
Cosas bonitas y un par de tragedias
Hay personas gordas medianas y flacas
Caballos, gallinas, ovejas y vacas
Hay muchos animales con mucha gente
Personas cuerdas y locos de mente
(rudimentary translation here)
Lining up to enter the concert hall, and later in the auditorium itself, there were people of all spots and stripes: a pimpled teenager in the agonised classic Nirvana tee, a black lady in white of Santera religion, a woman in full National Guard uniform, plenty of damas in pearls and cashmere, a bearded old man in a moth-eaten cardy, a twenty-something with dreadlocks and rasta beanie, groups of young musicians in the brick-red government shirts, handfuls of children listening anxiously on laps of parents, an abundance of moustaches, a couple of tourists, at least one spectator who forgot to put his phone on silent (“COÑO!!!! EL TELÉFONO!!!!!”).
Like most social programmes, El Sistema offers plenty of problems and opportunities to criticise (Geoff Baker’s blog is designed to do just this…). But anyone with a remote interest in the democratisation of elite cultures will find it difficult to do down Venezuela’s achievement in diversifying the orchestral audience. In Britain I’ve yet to encounter such an open space in the classical music ambit, where people of all backgrounds are welcome – indeed, able, or encouraged – to attend the country’s finest concerts. That El Sistema has worked so hard to achieve this can only be commended.