The Music Sounds Like Social Justice

SINCE EL SISTEMA, Venezuela’s acclaimed national system of free classical music education, began in 1975, it has come to represent an avenue for social change, national unity, a path out of poverty and what creator José Antonio Abreu calls the expression of “sublime feelings.” Youth orchestras and ensembles bloomed, particularly in impoverished barrios. Great artists emerged, like Gustavo Dudamel, now conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2015 alone, 700,000 youngsters made music at more than 400 centers around Venezuela.

Elaine Sandoval

Elaine Sandoval

But what about llanera, the traditional music of Venezuela’s western plains?

Elaine Sandoval, an ethnomusicology doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, will use her 2016 Fulbright research grant to see how this indigenous music – born in the confluence of Spanish, Indian, and African cultures – fits in.

“I’m fascinated with the idea of using music for social justice,” she says. “I will spend time in the classrooms in Guárico State, observing how llanera music has developed in the El Sistema curriculum. I want to see how this oral tradition is brought alongside the orchestral tradition, how students learn and the importance of local influences. I’ll also do archival work on the historical background of this program.”

Sandoval says she came to CUNY in 2014 because she was “impressed by the ethnomusicology faculty at the Graduate Center,” including professors Jane Sugarman, Peter Manuel and Stephen Blum.

She holds a five-year magnet fellowship for doctoral students from underrepresented groups; as part of her responsibilities, she mentors students in the CUNY Pipeline Program, which encourages underrepresented undergraduates to seek Ph.Ds.

“I see the process of diversifying academia, both in terms of the professoriate and curricula, as paralleling a lot of what I’m interested in with El Sistema. Being involved in these CUNY programs has influenced how I think about my research,” she says.

Sandoval has extensive background in ethnomusicology and music education. She holds a B.A. in liberal arts/humanities from Soka University of America, a California institution grounded in Buddhist principles and committed to creating global citizens. At Oxford University, she earned a master’s in ethnomusicology with a dissertation called “Globalization, Multicultural Music Education and El Sistema” that included research at British Sistema sites in Norwich and Liverpool. After graduation, she was a Sistema Fellow at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she helped evaluate that program’s achievements and served as a consultant for El Sistema-inspired programs in San Francisco.