Tenleytown music store owner embraces ‘Landfill Harmonic’

August 21, 2013

It turns out that Washington isn’t the only world capital with a junkyard band. But while D.C.’s group of that name plays go-go, Paraguay’s Landfill Harmonic performs Bach and Pachelbel.

The youth orchestra is known for playing European classics on instruments constructed from trash scavenged from a massive dump on the outskirts of Asuncion, the country’s capital. The troupe, officially known as Orquesta de Reciclado de Cateura, got an upgrade this spring when a Tenleytown music store owner shipped 23 boxes of instruments to Paraguay.

Next week, some of the orchestra’s most experienced players will visit Washington, where they will play free concerts Tuesday at the Inter-American Development Bank, at noon, and the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, at 6 p.m. The next day at 6 p.m., they’ll attend a public reception at Middle C Music, the shop owned by their benefactor, Myrna Sislen.

The undertaking began at Clyde’s in Friendship Heights, where Sislen was having lunch with Paraguayan classical guitarist Berta Rojas, a longtime friend. Rojas mentioned the kids’ orchestra, based in the impoverished Cateura neighborhood that borders the landfill. The group and its one-of-a-kind instruments, most of them made by Cateura resident Nicolas Gomez, are featured in a popular YouTube video.

“Berta said they needed 10 violins and three violas,” Sislen recalled. “That seemed doable.”

But the project “grew exponentially,” she said. “Cellos, clarinets, trumpets, flutes and trombones — all the orchestral instruments, basically.” Ultimately, Sislen also contributed saxophones, a double bass and a drum kit. Those last two items were purchased in Paraguay, because shipping them would have been too complicated.

Many of the instruments were bought at cost from the Music Link, a San Francisco manufacturer and distributor. Others came from Middle C’s pool of rental instruments. The 11-year-old store assumed all the costs.

Sislen estimated the price at $20,000 to $30,000 and said the whole project was accomplished in about a month.

“I think the reason that it did work is because I’m small,” she said. “I didn’t ask anybody for anything. I didn’t check with my accountant.

“It seems to have worked out okay,” she added. “The door’s open. I’m not going broke.”

Sending the instruments to Paraguay would have been impossible, Sislen said, without the help of the American Embassy in Asuncion, which received the packages and held them until Sislen arrived in May to donate them officially.

The store owner admitted that she wasn’t initially keen on that part of the arrangement. As a classical guitarist, Sislen used to tour the world. “But I just don’t do that so much anymore. At the beginning, I thought, ‘No. I have trouble getting to Connecticut Avenue.’

“It wasn’t till the middle of it that I decided, ‘I’m on the train. I’m going to take the whole ride,’ ” she said.

That ride ultimately took her to a concrete-walled school in muddy Cateura. American Ambassador James Thessin was there, but Asuncion’s mayor, who wanted the ceremony staged in a downtown theater, didn’t attend.

“An unintended other consequence of doing this was to bring attention to a place that they would prefer not to have attention brought to,” Sislen noted.

The distinctive-looking handmade instruments, she discovered, don’t sound quite as impressive in person as on YouTube. But the youngsters took quickly to the new ones.

“They’re really nice kids,” Sislen said. “They practice, and they read music.”

“The astonishing thing to me was how quickly they were able to incorporate the new instruments. I thought it would take weeks. It took them two days.”

After the Aug. 28 reception, Sislen will take the teenage musicians across the street for a Mexican dinner. But first, she plans to show them one of Middle C’s prized possessions. It’s a mostly metal violin, made in part from a battered cake pan and a bent fork, fabricated near a landfill in Paraguay.

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