Through the waste at a landfill site in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Asunción, Paraguay, hundreds of children walk with musical instruments, small and large, on their backs. The black cases do not hide a Stradivarius or a cello made from precious woods, but rather violins, guitars, flutes, saxophones and even a double bass made from coins, bits of pipe, plastic, tin cans and the remains of donated instruments.
Their proud owners are members of the Paraguay Recycled Instruments Orchestra, a group of children and young people that grew up in Cateura, a neighbourhood looked down on for its poverty and its closeness to the Asunción municipal dump.
The project was dreamt up in 2006 by the Paraguayan musician and environmental technician Favio Chávez, who has transformed his community through music, his commitment and that of his pupils.
When Chávez arrived in Cateura, with its un-asphalted streets, the neighbourhood was only known for its appearance in the crime sections of the daily papers.
As the site of the rubbish dump for an entire city where barely minimal recycling takes place, it has been the subject of many police reports and sensationalist stories, feeding the prejudices against a community principally dedicated to recycling waste.
At the time, Chávez was planning to finish his thesis on the separation of waste, but the children of the gancheros, as the rubbish dump workers are known in Paraguay, started making demands on his attention that went well beyond sorting waste.
New dreams and opportunities, beyond recycling
As not only a technician but also a musician, he decided to bring two guitars to entertain the children while their parents worked on the rubbish heaps. The instruments helped distance them from the dangerous machines, the dirt and other threats around the rubbish dump.
More children wanted to take part every time, and as Chávez did not have enough instruments for everyone, he decided to persuade “Don Cola”, Nicolás Gómez, a veteran rubbish heap worker, to repair a broken violin.
Don Colá used the wood of the original and added scraps of metal found on the rubbish heap to complete his unique violin. Thus was born the distinguishing feature that has marked out the Cateura Orchestra from all the other professional groups in the country, and led to it being invited to play concerts for the royal houses of Spain and Holland and to tour South America with the US band, Metallica.
“When Favio picked it up and played it, I couldn’t believe it. I never thought it could be played,” luthier Don Colá told Equal Times, while working in his humble workshop on the rubbish dump.
The makeshift houses of the bañados, as the poor neighbourhoods around Asunción are called, are on the verge of being washed away. Every time it rains, everything floods. Tiny homes, large families, social problems, and a lack of public services, roads and drains: that is Cateura, with the added attraction of an enormous rubbish dump with little environmental control.
“People bring us their rubbish and we convert it into music,” says Jorge Cóne Ríos, a father of three pupils in the orchestra and one of the oldest neighbours in the district, speaking to Equal Times.
Thanks to Chávez’s initiative, and with the support of Don Colá, there were soon guitars, violins and tin drums for everyone, as well as saxophones and trumpets, made with old bits of pipe.
When some of the pupils reached a certain level, Favio and the mothers of many of these young musicians – the founders of the community association Cateura Harmony which supports and organises a music school – formed the orchestra.
Now hundreds of children are dreaming of studying music, playing, travelling and quitting their poor neighbourhood. The school accepts all of them and as they progress in their training they start to join the orchestra, which goes on national and international tours.
The community and the country respect the “recyclers”, as the members of the orchestra acknowledge.
The rubbish dump is still in use. But the neighbourhood isn’t known only for its landfill, it is also known for its children who can be seen every Wednesday and Saturday with their instruments in their hand.
Cateura on the big screen
There is now a documentary, Landfill Harmonic, a US production, portraying the musical journey of the Paraguay Recycled Instruments Orchestra.
The musical project was brought to the big screen by directors Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley, who began filming in 2012. The film, which was shown to the musicians and their community last week, will be officially released in the United States in September.
“I am a little anxious about the Paraguayans seeing this film. It gives me goose bumps to think about it being shown on a big screen in movie theatres. The girls know how to handle it better because they have already seen it at several festivals. I’m very proud of that,” said Cóne after the film was shown.
His daughter Ada was 13 when she began to learn to play the violin in the orchestra. Now, at 18, she has no doubt that the rest of her life will be bound up with music and already has a place in a major school in the capital.
“Now what I knew from the beginning is happening. The film will show that poor people can overcome adversity with very few resources. In the most deprived neighbourhoods there are still good people, it is not all about delinquency and living a marginal existence as the rich seem to think,” says her proud father, a tailor by trade.
According to Cóne, the film has lots of good things to show: creativity, art, ecology and solidarity. “It’s excellent”.