From trash to Tchaikovsky, slums kids turn trash into mu­sic

Born from the de­tri­tus of a Paraguay land­fill, the ‘Re­cy­cled In­stru­ments Or­ches­tra’ brings mu­sic and hope to slum chil­dren


While many of the kids in Asun­cion’s Ca­teura slum pin their hopes for the fu­ture on land­ing ca­reers as soc­cer play­ers or pop stars, Bran­don Cobone’s ticket out of the shan­ty­town was some­thing stranger than a soc­cer ball and rarer than a mi­cro­phone. It was a Franken­stein of a dou­ble bass, cob­bled to­gether from garbage plucked from the nearby land­fill that gives Ca­teura both its name and its smell.

The 18-year-old is a mem­ber of the Orquesta de In­stru­men­tos Re­ci­cla­dos de Ca­teura-the Re­cy­cled In­stru­ments Or­ches­tra of Ca­teu­rawhich uses mu­sic to give the chil­dren of the slum the skills to build a bet­ter fu­ture.

The or­ches­tra was cre­ated al­most by ac­ci­dent by en­vi­ron­men­tal engi­neer Favio Chavez, a mu­sic lover who was work­ing with the gancheros, or garbage pick­ers who comb the vast land- fill for re­cy­clables.

“It started with a sim­ple com­ment,” he said, re­fer­ring to the gancheros’ re­quest, af­ter learn­ing of Chavez’s mu­si­cal skills, that he give their kids lessons. Chavez soon ran into a stum­bling block. He didn’t own enough in­stru­ments to go around, es­pe­cially since his stu­dents’ zeal some­times re­sulted in in­ad­ver­tently smashed gui­tars or cracked vi­o­lins.

And so Chavez re­solved to take ad­van­tage of one re­source he had in abun­dance-trash. He made a vi­o­lin out of a strainer, a me­tal dish and me­tal tub­ing. “It didn’t sound like much,” he ac­knowl­edged, adding that the next few in­stru­ments, in­clud­ing a “guitar” cut out of a piece of wood with a cou­ple of strings at­tached, weren’t much bet­ter. “They were di­dac­tic.”

Chavez teamed up with one of the gancheros, a skilled car­pen­ter named Ni­co­las Gamez, to make a va­ri­ety of in­stru­ments that looked more or less like the real thing and sounded like it, too. Now the Orquesta has ver­sions of most of the in­stru­ments in a con­ven­tional or­ches­tra, con­cocted out of cook­ing pots, bot­tle tops, melted keys and the like.

The Orquesta be­came an in­ter­na­tional phe­nom­e­non af­ter a group of film­mak­ers took in­ter­est and posted a teaser for a doc­u­men­tary on the In­ter­net in 2012 (ti­tled “Land­fill Har­monic,” it pre­miered at Austin’s South by South­west fes­ti­val this year). Since then it’s been flooded with in­vi­ta­tions to play stages from Ger­many to Ja­pan and even toured South Amer­ica as an open­ing act for Me­tal­lica.

Sand­wiched be­tween the land­fill and the Paraguay River, the Ca­teura slum is a col­lec­tion of lowslung homes, some made from raw brick and oth­ers pasted to­gether from cor­ru­gated tin and re­cu­per­ated trash. Sewage runs in muddy streets pocked with gi­ant pud­dles of stand­ing wa­ter and strewn with de­tri­tus fallen from the con­stant com­ings-and-go­ings of fetid garbage trucks. The air is sour with the stench of the land­fill, where many of the slum’s 20,000-plus res­i­dents eek out a liv­ing as gancheros. And when the river floods, as it did last year, Ca­teura is sub­merged.

Chavez notes that the Orquesta is less about forg­ing world-class mu­si­cians than turn­ing dis­en­fran­chised kids into full-fledged cit­i­zens. “Are they all go­ing to be pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians?

I don’t think so,” he said. “What we want is to teach a dif­fer­ent way of be­ing, to in­still in them dif­fer­ent val­ues than those that hold sway in their com­mu­nity.”

“There, the role mod­els are the gang lead­ers, who im­pose them­selves through vi­o­lence and dom­i­nance,” he said. “In the Orquesta, the role mod­els are the hard­est work­ers, those with the most ded­i­ca­tion, the most com­mit­ment.”

The 40-plus or­ches­tra mem­bers are se­lected not for their in­nate mu­si­cal­ity but for the as­sid­u­ous­ness with which they at­tend Satur­day morn­ing lessons. Once cho­sen, they must also at­tend weekly re­hearsals, where they pre­pare a reper­tory that in­cludes clas­si­cal stand-bys -- Beethoven’s “5th Sym­phony” and Vi­valdi’s “The Four Sea­sons” -- as well as tra­di­tional Paraguayan tunes.

Thanks to do­na­tions, the mu­si­cians now have con­ven­tional in­stru­ments they use in re­hearsals. But they con­tinue to play on the home­made in­stru­ments, an in­te­gral part of the Orquesta’s iden­tity, for per­for­mances.

“In Ca­teura, noth­ing is for­mal, noth­ing is planned and ev­ery­thing hap­pens al­most spon­ta­neously,” said the French-born as­sis­tant di­rec­tor, Thomas Le­court, adding that their first in­ter­na­tional tours were lo­gis­ti­cal night­mares be­cause many of the kids didn’t have pass­ports or even birth cer­tifi­cates. “The re­hearsals, the trips, the re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­ing in the Orquesta brings struc­ture to their lives.”

In­side a nar­row lot in the mid­dle of the slum, work­men are busy build­ing the Orquesta’s first per­ma­nent space. Al­ready a small cadre of teenage girls scratch out ba­sic notes on their vi­o­las, ap­par­ently deaf to the ca­coph­ony of ham­mer­ing, saw­ing and drilling all around. Boys mak­ing snare drums out of wood and me­tal scraps, with old X-rays as skins, add to the tu­mult.

“Join­ing the Orquesta put me on a dif­fer­ent track in life,” said An­dras Riveros, 20, a sax­o­phon­ist in his first year of col­lege. “And lucky for that, be­cause a lot of my friends who didn’t join are ei­ther drug ad­dicts or in prison by now.”

Cobone, who’s vis­ited some 15 coun­tries with the Orquesta, is also pre­par­ing to go to col­lege. He’s al­ready packed more ex­pe­ri­ence into his 18 years than he ex­pected to in a life­time.

“From the time I was lit­tle I al­ways wanted to travel, but I never imag­ined it would hap­pen … and es­pe­cially not be­cause of this,” he said, ges­tur­ing to his dou­ble bass, a dented steel drum that once con­tained cal­cium car­bide and cast­away wooden beams.

Juanjo Villa

Cin­tia and Amara on their way to the Ca­teura mu­sic school in Paraguay.

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