CATEURA, Paraguay – The sounds of a classical guitar come from two big jelly cans. Used X-rays 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 well as keys for a saxophone.
A chamber orchestra of 20 children uses these and other instruments fashioned out of recycled materials from a landfill where their parents eke out livings as trash-pickers, regularly performing the music of Beethoven and Mozart, Henry Mancini and the Beatles. A concert they put on for The Associated Press also featured Frank Sinatra’s My Way and some Paraguayan polkas.
Rocio Riveros, 15, said 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.
Word is spreading about these kids from Cateura, a vast landfill outside Paraguay’s capital where some 25,000 families live alongside reeking garbage in abject poverty.
The youngsters of The Orchestra of Instruments Recycled From Cateura performed in Brazil, Panama and Colombia this year, and hope to play at an exhibit opening next year in their honor at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.
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, said Favio Chavez, a social worker and music teacher who started the orchestra.
The museum connection was made by a Paraguayan documentary filmmaker, Alejandra Amarilla Nash. She and film producer Juliana Penaranda-Loftus have followed the orchestra for years, joining Chavez in his social work while making their film Landfill Harmonic on a shoestring budget.
The documentary is far from complete. The kids still have much to prove.
But last month, 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, said Daniel Piper, curator of the 5,000-instrument Arizona museum.
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, irritating Chavez’s boss.
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 said.
The museum also will display wind instruments made by Tito Romero, who was repairing damaged trumpets in a shop outside Asuncion until Chavez came calling and asked him to turn galvanized pipe and other pieces of scavenged metal into flutes, clarinets and saxophones.
It’s slow work, demanding precision, but it’s very gratifying, Romero said.
Chavez is turning these kids of Cateura into people with a lot of self-esteem, giving them a shield against the vices.