By: Jack M.
“The world sends us garbage… we send back music.” Favio Chavez.
The small town of Cateura is situated a few miles outside Paraguay’s capital city of Asunción, and for most of its existence, Cateura, with a population of about 10,000, has been known for just one thing – it’s the home for the country’s largest landfill dump. Many of the residents spend their days scavenging through mountains of garbage with the hope of finding something – anything – of value, which they can use or clean up and sell for a meagre income; paper gets five cents a pound and plastic ten cents. The rampant poverty has been coupled with violence, gangs, alcoholism and drug use, but now there’s a reason why this little community in Paraguay’s wasteland can unshackle itself from its unsavoury reputation and hold its head up high.
Many of the residents of Cateura spend their days scavenging through mountains of garbage with the hope of salvaging something of value, which they try to refurbish and sell.
The story began about nine years or so ago, when a local environmental worker was visiting Cateura to work on a waste management project. But Favio Chavez was not just another environmentalist who was trying to improve the lot of the residents of Cateura, he was also a lover of music. And that’s when Paraguay’s city of garbage took the first step to reinvent itself, and, for the first time, foster a sense of dignity and accomplishment for its residents.
One of Cateura’s garbage pickers, Nicolás Gómez, found a piece of junk that resembled the shape of a violin and brought it to Favio. And that’s when Favio had what can only be described as a flash of brilliance. With a little ingenuity and imagination, and using a few more bits and pieces collected from the dump, some strings that Favio himself supplied and some carpentry work from a local carpenter, the pair constructed an actual working violin. And from there, more pieces of junk and some more imagination, and the team of Favio and Nicolás couldn’t stop. Cellos, flutes, horns, drums and more violins were soon being put together. A cello was fashioned from an old oil barrel, a flute from a drainpipe and a drum from some old discarded X-ray film. And that’s when the wildest idea of all was born. Could an actual functioning orchestra be put together, and could the children of Cateura be trained and turned into musicians? The answers? Yes and yes. And so was born the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura (the website is in Spanish, but the images speak for themselves).
For the past four years, Chavez has dedicated his full time to the orchestra, and today there are hundreds of kids from Cateura who, instead of a life destined to be spent picking through society’s dregs and dross, have been trained and are travelling the world giving classical music concerts at sold-out venues. They have given a number of live performances in their native Paraguay and around South America, had their North American debut at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona (where there is a permanent exhibit of some of the Recycled Orchestra’s instruments) and most recently they’ve played at Norway’s Bergen International Festival,
The production company, Creative Visions, has made a movie about the story of the children from Cateura and their musical renaissance. Titled “Landfill Harmonic”, you can take a look at an excerpt here or here. And to help finance the movie and bring it to the world’s attention, a kickstarter campaign has been set up, which has raised over $200,000 to date.