When you think of an orchestra, you're probably picturing refined woodwinds, brass, and strings. But one ensemble I recently met is made up mostly of kids who play instruments made out of literal trash. This is the Recycled Orchestra from Cateura, Paraguay, and their group is the subject of a new documentary film.
Cateura is not a town, really. It's a slum alongside a landfill, located not far from Paraguay's capital city, Asunción.
Every day, about 3 million pounds of solid waste get dumped in Cateura. Many families eke out their existence by scavenging trash from the landfill to resell, and kids regularly get pulled out of school to help. During rainstorms, the landfill floods, and residents have to wade through contaminated water.
"Really, to be honest with you," says 16-year-old violinist Noelia Rios, "there was practically nothing in Cateura. What there was most was drugs."
Her violin, like many in the orchestra, is made out of cans, wooden spoons and bent forks. One of the ensemble's cellos uses an oil drum for its body. String pegs are created from detritus like old cooking utensils and even the heel of a worn-out women's shoe. Drum heads are made from old X-ray film, held in place with copious amounts of packing tape. Fifteen-year-old Tobias Armoa plays a saxophone made out of a drainpipe, melted copper, coins, spoon handles, cans and bottle caps.
The Recycled Orchestra was founded 10 years ago by Favio Chavez. "I went to work in Cateura as an environmental engineer," Chavez says. "I saw that there were a lot of children there, and I had the idea to teach them music in my free time."
Chavez' classes became so popular that they soon ran out of donated instruments. So he asked Nicolas Gomez, a talented carpenter in the community nicknamed "Cola," to make new instruments for his group — out of stuff from the landfill.
Several years ago, the orchestra caught the attention of a team of filmmakers led by executive producer Alejandra Amarilla. She knew that most people outside Paraguay had no clue about her home country. So the team went looking for a story to tell.
"It was mostly to be able to create awareness on children's issues," Amarilla says. "The uniqueness of the story that I ended up picking was that it contained a very strong emotional component, and very inspiring."
Four years ago, the film team made a short video for a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise $175,000 to make a full-length documentary. Not only did they raise the money — the video went viral. Since then, the Recycled Orchestra has performed for politicians, monarchs and Pope Francis. The group plays Mozart, Paraguayan folk music, even Frank Sinatra. And the young musicians have backed up artists like Stevie Wonder, Metallica and Megadeth.
These days, kids from Cateura are flocking to join the orchestra. Ten-year-old Cinthia Servin, who plays the violin, says that she looked up to some of the older girls in the ensemble, and saw all the amazing opportunities they were having to travel well beyond Paraguay: "I wanted to play because it seemed like they liked what they were playing," she says, "and I wanted to visit other countries."
But it hasn't been easy for the Recycled Orchestra to go from being a community-based group to being the toast of international development folks and media around the world.
"Nothing that happened to us was planned, of any of this," Chavez says. "We're still learning to deal with it, moment to moment."
In the meantime, the ensemble has brought a lot of good to Cateura. Money the orchestra has generated from its international touring has funded the building of new, safer homes for several members of the group and their families — and the orchestra's lead instrument maker, Cola Gomez.
Chavez says there's also been a bigger change. "What we have achieved," he says, "is that in the community, children are respected. And respect for the moment that they need to get an education. It's something sacred. Before, it wasn't like this. Before I gave music classes, the mom or dad would take the kid away by the hand because they had to go to work. Today, that's unthinkable, impossible for it to happen. And we've already achieved the most difficult thing, which is to change the community."
Maybe it didn't have to be music that triggered such a fundamental shift. It could have been soccer, or chess, or theater, or some other activity.
But Chavez says that the kids playing in the Recycled Orchestra are creating something gorgeous out of nothing.
"To be a musician," he says, "you have to be responsible, persistent, tenacious, conscientious and sensitive. Without these values, you can't be a musician. But music has such a great power that it can't be just of the musicians. Music can transform society. "
Even more people will learn about that transformation as the documentary, Landfill Harmonic, opens in theaters around the U.S. this month, and screens later on HBO Latino.