In Cateura, Paraguay, there is landfill. Out of that landfill grew a shantytown. Out of that shantytown grew an orchestra — an orchestra with instruments made of garbage — a Recycled Orchestra.
Started in 2006 by Favio Chavez, an environmental engineer and part-time music teacher working on a recycling project in Cateura, the Recycled Orchestra began when the landfill workers asked Chavez to teach their children music.
He agreed, but they had a few problems to solve first. Instruments are scarce and expensive in Cateura and it could be a safety hazard for the children to carry around the instruments — some worth more than their homes.
Chavez, working hand-in-hand with a local woodworker named Nicholas Gomez, sent trash-pickers into the landfill to look for items that could be re-purposed as instruments.
After two years of experimenting with the resonation properties of various objects, they finally had enough instruments for an ensemble. These included a violin made from a commercial glue canister, a flute constructed from a tin water pipe, an oil-barrel cello and a drum made with x-ray films.
These instruments, along with four others, are on display at the Musical Instrument Museum, where, on Aug. 9-10, 14 members of the La Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados (or Recycled Orchestra), now part of a flourishing music school composed of multiple ensembles, make their U.S. debut.
The museum coordinated the visit in conjunction with the Landfill Harmonic — a documentary about the orchestra produced by Phoenix resident Alejandra Nash and directed by Graham Townsley. The orchestra’s visit to Phoenix is part of Nash’s effort to carry the message of the documentary (scheduled for release in 2014) beyond the movie.
“Landfill Harmonic is much more than a documentary,” Nash wrote in an email. “We highlight world issues such as poverty, waste pollution and youth education. After the film, I plan on starting the LH movement and outreach, recreating this model where it is needed. There are many Cateuras in the world that could benefit immensely from a program similar to the Recycled Orchestra’s.”
Dr. Daniel Piper, curator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the MIM, agreed that the story has broader implications.
“We hope the public will really be impressed by the value given to music by this group despite the fact that they have nowhere near the resources we have here,” he said.
“Poverty is not an obstacle to a life that is rich in music. We see lots of innovation because people are trying to preserve their music in spite of economic hardship. This story is a really beautiful example of that.”
Although the orchestra’s individual concerts are sold out, you can still hear them play live at Family Day on Aug. 10, where you’ll have a chance to meet the orchestra, help dedicate the new exhibit highlighting the recycled instruments, make your own re-purposed instrument, and eat Paraguayan-insipred food in the cafe. The MIM is also accepting contributions to help cover the orchestra’s travel costs. Donations can be made at MIM.org.