Can music help you transcend your circumstances? Anthropologist Yana Stainova explores musical “enchantment” among young musicians in Venezuela and considers its influence in political movements.
In her ethnographic book Sonorous Worlds (2021), sociocultural anthropologist and assistant professor Yana Stainova dives into the lives of young Venezuelan musicians who participate in the state-funded music education program, El Sistema. The Venezuelan initiative provides free classical music education and instruments to more than a million young people.
Since its inception in 1975, the nationwide music program has come to encompass 1,210 orchestras for children and youth in Venezuela. Many of the musicians who participate in the program live in urban barrios and face persistent threats to their safety, security, and freedom.
Stainova’s book explores how young musicians from the barrios use Sistema to create “sonorous worlds” that enable them to go beyond the limitations of their circumstances to engage in society in new and powerful ways.
“Sonorous Worlds” has received critical acclaim from the anthropological community. To date, Stainova has been awarded the Edie Turner Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology (2022), the Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology Book Prize (2021), and the Labrecque-Lee Book Award by the Canadian Anthropology Society (2021).
Kristina Jacobsen, on behalf of the Edie Turner Prize Committee, praised Stainova’s ethnographic approach: “Stainova brings her own artistic practice and skills and identity into not only the fieldwork, as a form of participant observation, but also into the storytelling of the text, allowing an entry point into the narrative world of both the ethnographer and the rich, sound-filled ethnographic field setting being described.”
In a recent conversation, we asked Stainova to share a bit about her research into El Sistema, her observations in the field, and her thoughts on the recognition she has received for Sonorous Worlds.
WHAT DREW YOU TO STUDY VENEZUELAN BARRIOS?
In Venezuela, barrios are lower-income urban neighborhoods that are infrastructurally and economically marginalized from the rest of the city. I was drawn to studying music in the barrios because this is the focus of El Sistema as a program: almost all of the branches in this network of music schools are located in barrios and aim to bring free classical music education and instruments to the most underprivileged communities. As a researcher, I was interested in exploring the importance of music practice and belonging to El Sistema for children and youth whose opportunities for the future were limited. I found that young people who participated in El Sistema and their families had bold dreams that transcended the predictable cycles of poverty and violence in the barrios. Such dreams are part of what I call “enchantment.”
WHEN DID YOU FIRST ENCOUNTER ENCHANTMENT IN THE FIELD AND WHAT FORM DID IT TAKE?
I first encountered enchantment in the field when my central interlocutor Demian took me to visit a small El Sistema school in a remote village in Venezuela. It was a hot afternoon and no people were to be seen on the streets. When we got to the El Sistema school, however, it was teeming with activity: children were practicing with enthusiasm and the sound of music emanated onto the street. I saw a group of young children together, playing music on their own. This encounter with beauty in the midst of socioeconomic hardship — another instance of enchantment — was something I would continue to experience throughout my fieldwork.
WHAT ROLE DOES EL SISTEMA PLAY IN THE FUTURE OF VENEZUALA?
When I was doing my ethnographic research, Venezuela was already starting to descend into a political and economic crisis that only deepened in the following years. At the time, El Sistema was one of the few stable institutions in the country, a rare resilience that had lasted four decades. However, El Sistema ultimately reflects the state of the society it finds itself in and is currently deteriorating as well. Many of the El Sistema participants I met during my fieldwork ended up immigrating to Europe and other countries in Latin America. They dream of one day returning to Venezuela and teaching music. Their stories are what remains untold by the grand narratives of institutional and government collapse and where some strands of Venezuela’s future might lie.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO HAVE YOUR WORK RECOGNIZED?
It has been an unimaginable joy and honour to receive three awards for my book. Ever since I was a graduate student, I have always admired the ethnographic books awarded the prestigious Victor Turner prize for ethnographic writing, and the recently established Edie Turner prize that selects an author’s first book in this category. It is also moving to be recognized by fellow Latin Americanists and by the anthropological society of my new home country, Canada.