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The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura

by admin on November 14, 2014

“The world sends us garbage.  We send back music.”

These are the words of Favio Chavez, an environmental engineer with a background in music.  Eight years ago, he was a part of a waste recycling project at the landfill of Cateura. Cateura is a small slum in Paraguay, South America that has grown around and survives on a landfill.  It is home to about 2,500 families, has little electricity or plumbing, and has a contaminated water source. It’s next to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay and receives all of the capital’s trash. According to a 2010 Unicef report, Cateura receives more than 1,500 tons of solid waste each day.  The citizens survive by picking through the trash and selling scraps.  Cateura is one of the poorest towns in South America; Drugs, gangs, and violence are prevalent as a result of such severe poverty.  Life is bleak for the children.  Nearly half of the children don’t finish school because their families need them to work in the landfill.

Chavez saw an opportunity to improve the lives of these children.  After observing the need, Chavez in collaboration with Paraguay’s National Orchestra director, Luis Szarán, started teaching them music lessons to keep them from playing in the landfill.  Initially there was no place to practice so, ironically, they started practicing in the landfill.  There was no money for instruments so Chavez recruited local recycler and carpenter Nicolas “Cola” Gomez to make a violin from materials pulled from the landfill.  In Cateura, a violin is worth more than a house. The first instrument was so successful that since then, Gomez has made over 450 instruments.  The instruments are very innovative: violins are made from tins and forks, cellos from oil drums, and there’s even a drum made with an x-ray plate.  The saxophones have coins and bottle caps for keys and guitars are made from dessert tins.  The recycled instruments are perfect for learning and practicing music.  They are not only environmentally conscious but help keep the kids safe.

The children who are a part of the Recycled Orchestra say their lives are changed forever and it has given them a positive outlet. Maria del Carmen, age 19, said “Before I used to feel depressed all the time, now I have hope.”

The story of the Recycled Orchestra is so moving that it has inspired a documentary called The Landfillharmonic.  It’s about the transformative power of music and highlights the vital issues of poverty and waste pollution.  The filmmakers have accomplished more since the teaser trailer went viral than they did in the first 7 years of production.

The orchestra and the documentary were featured on 60 minutes in November 2013.  Since then, a Kickstarter for the documentary has been funded and the film should be released by the end of 2014.  The orchestra started not only touring South America but Europe and the United States as well.  The Recycled Orchestra has now made a music video with Lindsey Stirling and has officially toured with Metallica. The orchestra has grown from just a few musicians to 35 and the Music School of Cateura teaches music and how to build recycled instruments to over 200 kids from the landfill.

By Meredith Aabye

Photos courtesy of the Landfillharmonic

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Shelby Putnam November 19, 2014 at 8:47 am

After listening to your presentation, I immediately looked up more information about the Recycled Orchestra, and listened to the beautiful music that they produce in the squalor in which they are forced to live. Your article is very moving, and from your presentation, it is clear that this is a subject that you are very passionate about. Thank you for introducing me to this wonderful group of children.

Thea Butler November 19, 2014 at 12:17 am

This blows my mind. Awesome topic!! Would have loved to hear it in class but on the bright side, this is so cool that most people probably went back and you-tubed it as soon as they could. I enjoyed your presentation and am looking forward to hopefully reading your paper. I’d like to know more about how it all started and more of what they do to get their point across.

Amanda McCauley November 19, 2014 at 12:10 am

This is an awesome topic. I am also glad you raised awareness of this problem and its possible solution. I really like the ideas you presented and you seemed to have a bit of originality with your solutions. The links you have are also very cool. I am so happy you presented it, so now I know about it and can support making recycled instruments!

Kendall Rankin November 18, 2014 at 6:17 pm

I really like the use of hyperlinks in the article to outside sources on this topic. It gives me more to read and view on this really interesting subject. I’m glad this is a hopeful piece because topics dealing with waste and the environment are usually a little too sobering. This type of article ties in well with the class because it is directly related to music and the environment and has a hopeful message. This is a well written and thought out piece with a very interesting topic.

Morgan Gosserand November 18, 2014 at 3:59 pm

I think this is a really great way to attempt to fix this obvious problem and make something optimistic about the situation. It may take a very long time to fix but at least they are starting to find different ways to bring happiness and awareness to these people. I think this topic is very good for this class because it incorporates music and environmental awareness into a great cause.

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