Landfill Harmonic

Every day around the world, many young children, some as young as three and four, step onto a poster board foot chart and lift a box violin and dowel rod bow into position. This routine is how these children enter into learning the Suzuki method of music. Generally, these starter instruments are made from an array of items otherwise slated for the garbage bin—empty tissue, Cracker Jacks, or macaroni and cheese boxes; old rulers or paint stir sticks; and sponges. Packing tape, some rubber bands, mole foam, shelf paper, a dowel rod, and one small, pink school eraser may also be part of the production process. Ultimately, for most of these children, the decision to go with the Suzuki method—or any form of music training—was made by a parent.

This entrée into the study of music has become commonplace in many communities. But there is one group of young musicians whose exposure came through a much less traditional channel. In their community, it was the children who made the choice to take up an instrument and spend hours practicing and in rehearsals. And even though their journey also involves the reclamation of refuse to create beautiful music, they don't trade their "starter" instruments with traditional instruments, yet they still manage to create beautiful music. Their particular path has proven to be transformational not only for the children themselves, but also for their parents and their community.

Cateura, a slum located next to the trash dump for Paraguay's capital city, Ascuncion, is home to approximately 2,500 families living in seven neighborhoods. According to a 2010 UNICEF report, about 1,500 tons of solid waste are deposited in the landfill every day. Most of these families living around the dump eke out their existence separating the garbage for the recycling industry. The local recycling industry pays 10 cents per pound of plastic and 5 cents per pound of cardboard. Cateura's children do much of the collecting and peddling of this waste.

It was during work on a 2006 waste recycling project at the Cateura dump that the seeds of an innovative musical endeavor began to germinate in the mind of environmental engineer and amateur musician Favio Chavez. Chavez put on a concert in Cateura with the youth orchestra he conducted from neighboring Carapegua in the hopes that Cateura's kids would want to learn how to play music instead of working and playing in the landfill. A number of children were interested, but because they were from impoverished families, they were unable to afford instruments. Chavez enlisted one of the garbage pickers, Nicolas Gomez—whom locals call Don Cola—to transform some of the garbage into musical instruments. Don Cola used tin water pipes, buttons, bottle caps, spoons, hair brushes, oil and paint cans, recycled wood packing crates, oil drums, and other refuse to create violins, cellos, guitars, and flutes. Under Chavez's tutelage and Don Cola's ingenuity the Recycled Orchestra was born.

"At first it was very difficult because we had no place to rehearse and we had to teach in the same place where the parents were working in the trash. The children knew nothing about music and it was very difficult to contact parents because many of them do not live with their children," Chavez said in a December 2012 Los Angeles Times story. Some parents were concerned in the beginning that their children would be using traditional instruments, and these instruments would be stolen and used to buy drugs—a traditional violin costs more than a home in Cateura. But because the children used instruments made with recycled garbage, these fears were allayed. Over time, and as it became apparent that the music lessons, practice sessions, and rehearsals kept the children from getting into trouble, some parents who had previously abandoned their kids began to reclaim them.

In 2009, Alejandra Amarilla Nash, executive film producer, and Juliana Penaranda-Loftus, filmmaker, began creating a documentary as part of a project that would feature the underserved youth in Paraguay. While conducting their initial research, they learned about the orchestra and ultimately turned their original documentary into a piece about these young musicians, which they called Landfill Harmonic.

Thanks to successful social media and Kickstarter campaigns, the filmmakers' efforts to raise awareness and necessary funding led to the orchestra's being featured on 60 Minutes and NPR as well in most major news outlets. These campaigns also led to the Recycled Orchestra's world tour in 2014—one highlight of which featured the orchestra performing as Metallica's opening act before crowds of thousands during the heavy metal band's six-nation South American tour. (They have also performed with Megadeth.)

Their notoriety has helped the orchestra grow to 40 members, and Chavez's music school in Cateura now serves more than 200 children. In addition, proceeds from the tour went to establish a fund that supplies small, no-interest loans to Cateura families for home repairs and construction of extra rooms in their otherwise cramped living quarters. Instead of barely sustaining their existence by spending hours combing through mountains of garbage, these children are using the power of music to transform their lives and those of their families and community.

This transformation is best described in the words of the orchestra's members. In the documentary, Tania, one of the Recycled Orchestra's violinists, said, "My life would be worthless without music." Another young musician said, "When I listen (to) the sound of a violin, I feel butterflies in my stomach. It's a feeling that I don't know how to explain." Young violinist Ada Rios expressed her feelings beautifully:

When I play the violin I feel like I am somewhere else. I imagine that I'm alone in my own world and forget about everything else around me and I feel transported to a beautiful place...I'm transported to a place that is completely different to where I am now. It has clear skies, open fields and I see lots of green. It's clean with no trash. There is no contamination where we live. It's just me alone playing my violin.

And as Chavez told the producers of the film, "The world sends us garbage. We send back music...People realize that we shouldn't throw away trash carelessly. Well, we shouldn't throw away people either."

Resources on Other Sites

By Amy Hennessy, director of economic education at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
February 4, 2015