In Venezuela’s El Sistema, music is both a means of government control and a form of emancipation for youth musicians

Table of contents


I. Music

1. Touched by Music
2. Dreaming within Systems
3. El Sistema

II. Enchantment

4. Superación
5. The Life Behind the Music
6. Musical Vitalities
7. The Sonorous Gift
8. Enchantment as Method
9. An Enchanted Reading

III. Aspiration

10. Violence
11. The Labor of Enchantment
12. Revolutionary Mothering
13. Sonic Citizenship

IV. Power

14. Temporalities
15. The Ineffable
16. The Hearing State
17. The Dictatorship of Luxury
18. Sonorous Silence
19. Spaces of Social Ineffability
20. Dancing Energies





El Sistema is a nationwide, state-funded music education program in Venezuela. Founded in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu, the institution has weathered seven jolting changes in government. Hugo Chávez and, after his death, president Nicolás Maduro enthusiastically included the institution into the political agenda of the socialist project and captured the affective power of music for their own aims. Fueled by the oil boom in the 2000s, El Sistema grew over the years to encompass 1,210 orchestras for children and young people in Venezuela, reached almost 1 million people out of the 30 million in the country, and served as a model in more than 35 countries around the world.

Sonorous Worlds is an ethnography of the young Venezuelan musicians who participate in El Sistema, many of whom live in urban barrios and face everyday gang violence, state repression, social exclusion, and forced migration in response to sociopolitical crisis. This book looks at how these young people engage with what the author calls “enchantment,” that is, how through musical practices they create worlds that escape, rupture, and critique dominant structures of power.  Stainova’s focus on artistic practice and enchantment allows her to theorize the successes and failures of political projects through the lens of everyday transformations in people’s lives.

Yana Stainova is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University.

“Incisive and captivating, Sonorous Worlds leaves you with a feeling for which there are no words. The sentient, the storied, and the unresolved merge seamlessly in Yana Stainova’s bracing ethnographic composition. Like the music at its center, the writing pulls you in and carries you far. A magnificent feat, a must-read for our dire times.”
—João Biehl, Princeton University

- João Biehl

Winner: Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology (SLACA) 2021 Book Prize

- SLACA Book Prize

"By some hailed as visionary, by others reviled as propaganda, Venezuela’s once-vaunted El Sistema has—like much else in the country—become mired in antagonistic debate.  Sonorous Worlds cuts through the diatribe by focusing on the everyday experiences of the program’s young musicians, their families, and instructors as they navigate seemingly dissonant contexts: urban violence, luxury travel, social hierarchies, political turmoil, world-class performances. Combining a musician’s ear with gripping ethnography and novel theoretical reflections on sound, enchantment, and the ineffable, Stainova shows how the unpredictable emotions that music elicits at once empower and constrain El Sistema’s members to imagine alternative futures for themselves and their nation in ways that resist easy manipulation. More than a study of Venezuela or music, Sonorous Worlds is a master lesson on how deep listening can expose complex meanings beyond polarized narratives."
—Alejandro Velasco, New York University

- Alejandro Velasco

“By inviting us into the sonorous worlds of El Sistema’s young musicians, Yana Stainova enriches and even transforms our understanding of music and the political. In reading the book’s twenty short, gem-like chapters, we begin to truly understand why, in the midst of deep social turmoil, young people in Venezuela would choose to devote their lives to perfecting the music of mostly long-dead and geographically distant composers. Written with humility and grace, Sonorous Worlds is an exceptional music ethnography and a compelling model for anthropology in the twenty-first century.”
—Gavin Steingo, Princeton University

- Gavin Steingo

“In Sonorous Worlds, Yana Stainova brings to life Venezuela’s famed El Sistema program. Stainova deftly places intimate portraits of the young musicians and their families within the program’s history and relationship to the politics and institutions around it. Ultimately, at the heart of the book is a profound exploration of music and its remarkable ability to empower individuals and communities.”
—Francesco Lecce-Chong, Music Director of the Eugene Symphony and Santa Rosa Symphony

- Francesco Lecce-Chong

"Sonorous Worlds offers a note of hope in its celebration of utopian creativity through music."
NACLA Report on the Americas

- Julie Skurski

"Stainova’s book is an engaging combination of theoretical insight and observations from fieldwork and interviews with Sistema musicians spanning 2011-2018. ...This book will be interesting to music scholars, educators, and performers and anyone who has asked themselves questions about music and its place in society, particularly during times of struggle or unrest." 
CAML Review

- CAML Reviews

Co-Winner: Society for Humanistic Anthropology (SHA) 2022 Edie Turner First Book Prize in Ethnographic Writing

- SHA Edie Turner First Book Prize in Ethnographic Writing

Winner: CASCA (Canadian Anthropological Society) 2022 Labrecque-Lee Book Prize

- CASCA Labrecque-Lee Book Prize

"Overall, Sonorous Worlds offers a rich and moving account of students operating within one of the world’s most renowned and polarising classical music programmes operating in a political context that is no less polarising. Stainova compellingly demonstrates the successes and failings of the organisation by focusing on the everyday transformation that occurs within young musicians’ lives."
--LSE Review of Books

- LSE Review of Books

Listen: Yana Stainova interviewed on New Books Network | 4/13/2022
Listen: Yana Stainova interviewed on A Correction Podcast | 03/18/2021
Read: Sonorous Worlds: Musical Enchantment in Venezuela reviewed by LSE Review of Books | 11/02/2023
Read: Yana Stainova interviewed by Anthropology News | 04/10/2023
Read: Yana Stainova interviewed by the CaMP Anthropology blog | 03/06/2023