Paraguay’s Recycled Orchestra turns garbage into gold

Meet the youth orchestra that plays instruments made from discarded rubbish and have risen to open for heavy metal group Metallica, jammed with Stevie Wonder and Megadeth.
Musicians William Wilson Lopez, Cinthia Servin Aquino, Vannina Monserrath Vera Rojas, Celeste Elizabeth Fleitas Ortiz, Music director Favio Chavez, musicians Amara Rojas Ruiz Diaz and Emmanuel Insfran Caballero from the Landfill Harmonic, a Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in Paraguay. AFP
Musicians William Wilson Lopez, Cinthia Servin Aquino, Vannina Monserrath Vera Rojas, Celeste Elizabeth Fleitas Ortiz, Music director Favio Chavez, musicians Amara Rojas Ruiz Diaz and Emmanuel Insfran Caballero from the Landfill Harmonic, a Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in Paraguay. AFP

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 rubbish dump, is gaining an unlikely reputation as a hothouse for musical talent – and for a youth orchestra that plays instruments made from discarded rubbish.

“The world sends us rubbish – we send back music,” says Favio Chavez, leader of the Recycled Orchestra.

He hit upon the idea of using trash to make music 10 years ago. The orchestra members, impoverished children from Cateura, play violins made from oven trays and guitars fashioned from dessert dishes.

A 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 with a creative 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,” says 10-year-old violinist Celeste Fleitas.

“From Favio, I have learnt to be more responsible and value the things I have”.

Cateura, a shanty town of 40,000 people on the outskirts of the capital, Asuncion, is one of the poorest communities in South America.

The dumping ground for more than 1,500 tons 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 of them children – rummage through the dump on the floodplains of the Paraguay River for scraps they can sell.

Illiteracy is rampant, and children 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 proper, 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 making cellos, guitars and even double basses from rubbish.

The orchestra caught the eye of Paraguayan filmmaker Alejandra Amarilla, ex-wife of former LA Lakers basketball player Steve Nash, who began filming the young musicians in 2010.

She uploaded a short clip of the orchestra to YouTube in 2012, hoping to secure crowdfunding for a documentary.

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.

The end result was Landfill Harmonic, an acclaimed documentary that was released last month. It 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.

The film’s Los Angeles-based co-director Brad Allgood explains that he wanted audiences to feel 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’,” says Allgood.

The orchestra has opened for heavy metal group Metallica, jammed with Stevie Wonder and Megadeth, and spawned copycat projects across the world.

The Recycled Orchestra is in the process of securing its legacy by building a music school in Cateura.

“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 says.

“Music is a powerful force not only for the musicians. It unites people. It transcends linguistic barriers.”

• For more details go to www.recycledorchestracateura.com

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: September 28, 2016 04:00 AM

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