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