Festering alongside mountains of stinking trash under the sweltering South American sun, Cateura is a long way from the conservatories of Prague or Vienna. Yet the township which grew out of Paraguay’s largest dump is gaining an unlikely reputation as a hothouse for musical talent-and for its youth orchestra that plays instruments made from discarded rubbish. “The world sends us garbage. We send back music,” said Favio Chavez, leader of the “Recycled Orchestra,” during a recent visit by the group to Los Angeles.
Chavez hit upon the idea of using trash to make music 10 years ago. Orchestra members, impoverished children from Cateura, play violins fashioned from oven trays and guitars made from dessert dishes. One cello is made from an oil barrel with wooden spoons and a stiletto heel for tuning pegs, while a discarded x-ray serves as the skin for a drum. The orchestra provides the youngsters an outlet and an escape, a chance to transcend the squalor of their slum through the music of Mozart, Vivaldi and even Sinatra.
“In the beginning, it was difficult to play, but Favio helped me learn over time. From Favio, I have learned to be more responsible and value the things I have,” 10-year-old violinist Celeste Fleitas told AFP. Cateura, a shantytown of 40,000 people on the outskirts of the capital Asuncion, is one of the poorest communities in South America.
The destination for more than 1,500 tons (three million pounds) of waste each day, the community has no safe drinking water and little access to electricity or sanitation, so disease is rife. Impoverished slum-dwellers-many just children themselves-rummage through the dump on the floodplains of the Paraguay River for scraps they can sell. Illiteracy is rampant, and the children of the township often fall into drugs, gang violence and delinquency. Chavez, a musical prodigy who was directing his church choir by the age of 11, came to Cateura as an environmental technician in 2006 and started a youth music school.
He knew shop-bought instruments were beyond the means of villagers whose shacks are worth less than a violin, so he approached carpenter Don “Cola” Gomez to make one out of debris from the dump. It worked, and soon Gomez was manufacturing cellos, guitars and even double basses. The orchestra caught the eye of Paraguayan filmmaker Alejandra Amarilla, the ex-wife of former LA Lakers basketbal player Steve Nash, who began filming the young musicians in 2010.
Amarilla uploaded a short clip of the orchestra to YouTube in 2012, hoping to secure crowdfunding for what would become “Landfill Harmonic,” a theatrical documentary being released across the US this month. Within days, millions of people around the world had seen the footage, and donations poured in as the youngsters were catapulted onto the world stage. “Landfill Harmonic” follows the children-many of whom had never left the slum-as they embark on a tour of the world’s music halls, playing for European royalty and even Pope Francis.
Co-director Brad Allgood told AFP he wanted audiences to go away feeling inspired and motivated by Chavez’s idea that you have to be dedicated, willing to work hard and be a team player. “There is one line in the film that stands out for me, which is where he says ‘To have nothing is not an excuse to do nothing’,” the Los Angeles-based director told AFP. The orchestra has opened for heavy metal group Metallica, jammed with Stevie Wonder and Megadeth and spawned copycat projects across the world. Toby Armoa, 15, has been a member for four years, practicing his saxophone fashioned from a drainpipe, bottle tops and coins for two hours every day.
“The community has changed a lot, because now kids are thinking about finishing school and staying away from drugs. Now they want to have a brighter future,” he told AFP. The “Recycled Orchestra,” which is building a music school in Cateura, has given the community a newfound respect for the importance of education and the sanctity of childhood.
“Before, kids would stop studying or they’d have to go to work but now education has become an important aspect of the community,” Chavez said during the orchestra’s Los Angeles trip. “They may have fallen into drugs or other vices if this opportunity had not been there,” he added. “Music is a powerful force not only for the musicians. It unites people. It transcends linguistic barriers.”-AFP