Most Americans have never seen anything like Cateura, Paraguay, a city built atop a sprawling landfill in which most residents subside by foraging, repurposing, and selling useful bits scavenged from the trash. And most readers would admit that this seems like a highly unlikely location for the formation of a community orchestra, given that in Cateura even a cheap factory violin is worth more than most houses.
Enter the Catuera Orchestra of Recycled Instruments, the subject of a new documentary film-in-progress aptly titled Landfill Harmonic. The orchestra is the brainchild of music director Favio Chavez, and a team of parents and community activists are creating new opportunities for work in an initiative to build musical instruments from recycled trash. The orchestra plays classical music and Paraguayan folk melodies and has even started playing music by the Beatles; check out the video below to see neighborhood kids performing on instruments created from oil cans, forks, meat hammers, and all manner of “useless” debris:
I can’t think of another endeavor that so perfectly illustrates music’s capacity for social transformation or, furthermore, that on the most fundamental level music is social transformation. Music director Chavez has noted the impact that the orchestra is having locally and internationally: “People realize that we shouldn’t throw away trash carelessly. Well, we shouldn’t throw away people either.” For the impoverished people of Cateura, making the most of the materials you have at your disposal is both a musical and social mantra.
American major orchestras are an expensive affair, with budgets for soloists, publicity, instruments and insurance, and performer salaries, selling equally expensive tickets. And let’s not forget one of the largest expenses: executive pay. It seems to me that both musicians and administrators might learn something from the Cateura Orchestra of Recycled Instruments about investment, sacrifice, and priorities. In the words of the orchestra’s music director, “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.”