The sounds of a classical guitar come from two big jelly cans. Used X-ray print-outs serve as the skins of a thumping drum set. A battered aluminum salad bowl and strings tuned with forks from what must have been an elegant table make a violin. Bottle caps work perfectly as keys for a saxophone.
A chamber orchestra of 20 children in the South American country of Paraguay uses these and other instruments made out of recycled materials from a landfill where their parents earn their living by picking through trash looking for valuables. The kids regularly perform the music of Beethoven and Mozart, Henry Mancini and the Beatles.
Rocio Riveros, 15, says it took her a year to learn how to play her flute, which was made from tin cans. “Now I can’t live without this orchestra,” she said.
The youngsters of the Orchestra of Instruments Recycled From Cateura performed in Brazil, Panama and Colombia last year and hope to play at an exhibit opening this year in their honor at the Musical Instrument Museum in Arizona.
“We want to provide a way out of the landfill for these kids and their families. So we’re doing the impossible so that they can travel outside Paraguay, to become renowned and admired,” says Favio Chavez, the social worker and music teacher who started the orchestra.
Alejandra Amarilla Nash, who makes documentary, or nonfiction, movies, is even making a movie about the kids, called “Landfill Harmonic.”
The documentary is far from complete. The kids still have much to prove. But the filmmakers created a Facebook page and posted a short trailer on YouTube and Vimeo that has gone viral, quickly getting more than a million views altogether.
“It’s a beautiful story and also fits in very well with this theme of ingenuity of humans around the world using what they have at their disposal to create music,” says Daniel Piper, who works at the 5,000-instrument Arizona museum.
The community of Cateura could not be more poor. But the music coming from garbage has some families believing in a different future for their children.
“Thanks to the orchestra, we were in Rio de Janeiro! We bathed in the sea. . . . I never thought my dreams would become reality,” says Tania Vera, a 15-year-old violinist who lives in a wooden shack. Now Tania wants to be a veterinarian, as well as a musician.
The orchestra was started by Chavez, 37. He had learned clarinet and guitar as a child, and had started a small music school in another town in Paraguay before he got a job with an environmental organization teaching trash-pickers how to protect themselves.
Chavez opened a tiny music school at the landfill five years ago, hoping to keep youngsters out of trouble. But he had just five instruments to share, and the kids often grew restless.
So Chavez asked one of the trash-pickers, Nicolas Gomez, to make some instruments from recycled materials to keep the younger kids occupied.
“He found a drum and repaired it, and one thing led to another. Since he had been a carpenter, I asked him to make me a guitar. And so we just kept at it,” Chavez says.
Come April, the classical stringed instruments that Gomez has made in his workshop alongside his pigs and chickens will be on display in Arizona alongside one of John Lennon’s pianos and Eric Clapton’s guitars.
The orchestra is giving new meaning to the life of kids in the town. “I’m famous in my school thanks to being in the orchestra,” says 12-year-old Noelia Rios.