The Núcleo as a Safe Space: Continuity, Discontinuity, Contrast
Alix Didier Sarrouy, musician; Sociologist of Arts and Culture at Instituto de Etnomusicologia – Música & Dança, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, Portugal
As a sociologist of arts and culture, I have spent the last 12 years of my professional life studying how music education may serve as a tool for education and social emancipation for youth in socio-economically deprived territories. Though I am a musician (drummer and percussionist), my particular interest is in not only the music teaching methods, but also, more broadly, all the social interactions that happen in and around a núcleo, and how they contribute to the potentially transformative effects on the lives of young people.
For my 2017 Ph.D. thesis (available in French and Portuguese), I conducted intensive multi-sited fieldwork in three music schools inspired by El Sistema: núcleo Santa Rosa de Agua, in Maracaibo, Venezuela (El Sistema); núcleo Bairro da Paz, Salvador da Bahia, Brazil (NEOJIBA); and núcleo Miguel Torga, in Amadora, Portugal (Orquestra Geração). In addition to observing all classroom activities, I was attentive to the other living spaces: the office of the núcleos’ directors, the corridors, the playgrounds outside, the streets. Therefore, my study comprises all involved actors in a núcleo: students, teachers, parents, security staff, cleaning staff, and “utileros” (carriers, in Venezuela). Lastly, considering the agency of objects as they make us act and react, I also explored the role of musical instruments in the daily interactions between people. Musical instruments make much more than sounds.
Through the analysis of social contexts, it didn’t take long to observe that the art of teaching music and the challenge of managing a team are both impacted by what happens outside the walls of the núcleo. Paradoxically, the worst social context can sometimes be the best ground to guarantee the attachment of students and teachers to a núcleo. I shall present three observations that revealed a direct impact on the daily interactions happening in the núcleos: continuity; discontinuity; contrast.
Continuity. Let’s take the case of the students in núcleo Santa Rosa de Agua (VZ). Most of them had played music before joining the núcleo: in church, in the family’s popular music band, or in an orchestra from an industrial syndicate. Moreover, this is Maracaibo, a city where live music is part of daily life, where many homes have a radio on all day, and where street parties occur regularly with a vast array of complex music traditions (Joropo, Cumaco, Los Llanos music, Afro-Venezuelan music).
The parents, especially the single mothers, contribute to the continuity of the learning process, in the beginning as instigators, and from then on as demanding motivators for music studying. Church and school are also accomplices in the area of disciplined behavior: students may attend church ceremonies several times a week, having to be well dressed and to know a set of physical rituals (e.g., when to stand up, to sit down, to make the cross sign, to follow the priest’s words, to be calm and patient, etc.). In most Venezuelan public schools, students must stand up every time the teacher enters. They do a collective prayer and wait for the teacher’s call to sit down; on Mondays, everybody must stand in the courtyard to sing the National Anthem. Thus, there is a continuity of behavioral standards between the núcleo and the rest of daily life.
Discontinuity. However, many factors can disrupt a sense of continuity. Discontinuity is continuous in Santa Rosa de Agua: parents worry about not having food the next day; there are no baby formulas available; street safety is nonexistent; the value of bolivares and dollars changes constantly. A music student wanting to study the trombone in his stilt house may be stopped by his parents to go fishing for dinner. Interruptions of continuity come as undesired but expected disturbances. They are even more disruptive when the student has developed a strong attachment to the núcleo, the teachers, and an instrument, and wants to play and practice several hours a day.
This is why, unexpectedly, discontinuity can be a positive factor for the núcleo. The unwanted chaos it creates ends up reinforcing the attachment students develop for the núcleo, as a space with a certain kind of stability, freedom, passion, happiness, and protection. Discontinuity of daily life is part of what gives students and all involved actors a sense of appreciation for what the núcleo has to offer.
Contrast. This is a lived reality for all three núcleos I studied. They operate in the context of a vast disparity between socio-economic levels, housing types, security conditions, food access, education programs, and more. In the case of Maracaibo, the contrasting realities are physically close to each other, which makes the gap more acutely felt. Most people get used to it, but its intensity still disturbs people’s consciousness. For example, let’s look at the serious social problem of bullying. Most of the students I interviewed in Venezuela and Brazil spoke about the bullying they suffered in school and on the streets. Constant harassment by people outside the núcleo for their personality, their physicality, or their beliefs is, for them, a social reality that can cause major damage.
Sebastien, a shy 18-year-old double bass player in Venezuela, told me, “I am very afraid of doing things the wrong way.” His friend Bob, a 15-year-old mandolin player, added, “Some want to be your friend, others want to destroy you.”
These students described the importance of the contrast between the schools and the streets, where they were bullied, and the núcleo, where they were not. Students explained how núcleo Santa Rosa de Agua (VZ) and núcleo Bairro da Paz (BR) were welcoming and safe spaces to be. Even though these núcleos also mean schedules, discipline, work, and individual and group pressure, they are felt as a relief, a space in which their bodies and minds can reach certain ease, in contrast to the “world outside.”
Little did I know, during my fieldwork, that in 2021 the núcleo Santa Rosa de Agua would no longer exist. Due to Venezuela’s deep political, social, and financial troubles, and the uncontrollable rise of instability and violence, the núcleo has been vandalized by local gangs. All the instruments were stolen. Most of the people I interviewed in 2015 have escaped to other countries of the American continents. Those who have stayed in Maracaibo struggle to believe in a future for their children.
Nonetheless, among some who stayed and even some who left, there is hope in the voices, an urge to restart. Such feelings, fueled by religious beliefs in the city’s Virgin of Chiquinquirá, give them the strength to adapt and overcome. The maracuchos, inhabitants of Maracaibo, are an extremely proud population, with a strong love for their state of Zulia and a pride about being Venezuelan. Impermanence—and always finding strength and creative solutions—is part of their ethos.
An internationally acclaimed music program such as El Sistema is made not only by its main leaders and stars. Its true heart is also in the lesser-known núcleos—in the anonymous youngsters learning to play an instrument with great effort, day after day; in the single mothers who accompany their children to the núcleo and spend afternoons there to help out; in the teachers and professors who lead the núcleo with passion and professionalism, though with little pay. None of them will make the headlines or be in documentaries, and only a very few will make it to El Sistema’s acclaimed orchestras.
Nonetheless, for the past 46 years, they have been the unsung but very active backbone of El Sistema, all over the country, and nowadays all over the world. The flashiness of Venezuela’s El Sistema may have been subdued by political and pandemic contexts, but its musical ideals, its structural pillars, and its youth are still very much alive and ready to be part of a reconstruction toward a more sustainable and harmonious future.
Alix Didier Sarrouy is a Principal Investigator of “IncArt – Migrants and refugees in Europe: arts as tools for sociocultural inclusion” research project (2020-2026), financed by Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (CEECIND/00658/2018).