In the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion, there is a village called Cateura built practically on top of the city's main landfill. Families eke out a living sorting through the trash and selling whatever valuables they can find. Like many high poverty areas, drugs and gangs are rampant and children grow up with little hope of ever doing much more than sorting trash.
A trailer for a new documentary about Favio Chavez, a local ecologist and musician who is teaching the children of Cateura to play music on recycled instruments, has been circulating online at a rather feverish pace. The joy of the boy playing Bach on an oil-drum cello is difficult not to share.
Although he grew up nearby, Chavez first encountered these children when he worked on a waste recycling project at the landfill from 2006-'08 and got to know some of the local families. Since 2002, he has run a Boys Orchestra in his homevillage of Carapuengà and one day, he decided to repeat the same thing with the children of Cateura. More than 40% of children in the area don't finish school because their parents need them to work, so initially the idea of an orchestra was simply to keep the kids from playing in the landfill.
"At first it was very difficult because we had no place to rehearse and we had to teach in the same place where the parents were working in the trash," said Chavez. "The children knew nothing about music and it was very difficult to contact parents because many of them do not live with their children."
Eventually, parents began to see that playing music was keeping their kids out of trouble, some even reclaiming children they had previously abandoned.
Soon there were more children wanting lessons than there were instruments, so Chavez experimented with making some out of recycled materials from the landfill. String instruments have traditional tailpieces, fingerboards, scrolls and strings but the body, tuning pegs and other bits are made from whatever is around. "Eventually the recycled instruments were improved, and in many cases, they now sound better than the wooden Made In China instruments the more able children play on."
The recycled instruments serve another, more practical purpose: The kids can safely carry them. "For many children, it was impossible to give them a violin to take home because they had nowhere to keep it and their parents were afraid they would be robbed or the instrument would be sold to buy drugs."
Making instruments out of other materials, especially for beginning children is not so unusual. El Sistema, the more famous social music project in Venezuela, has children make their first instruments out of papier mâché until they are ready for real ones. In North America, small children starting Suzuki violin lessons are given a shoebox with a ruler for a neck and elastic bands for strings, so they can get used to holding the instrument.
Chavez has taught more than 120 children in Cateura and currently has 50 students, 25 of which make up the Recycled Orchestra. A recent tour of Rio de Janeiro, Panama and Bogota, Colombia, was complicated by the fact that none of the children had passports, with nearly half not even in possession of a birth certificate. "In some cases, I had to get the parents identity documents too. Now, because they are part of the orchestra, all the children have documents."
One of Chavez's best pupils is a 15-year-old girl called Tania. "She began her study with me in Cateura five years ago and now is one of the leading violins in the orchestra, " Chavez said. "Her father is addicted to crack, but had to stop for two days while he went to court to get permission for his daughter to go on tour. She lives in a single-room shack with her mother and three sisters, so when she wants to practice, the whole family has to leave the house. Because she is advanced, she has a wooden violin from China. It is worth more than her house."
Chavez is not trying to make top musicians out of his pupils, but rather to show them, and their parents, that studying something is worthwhile. "In 2011 I quit my job to devote full time to the project in Cateura because I noticed that the children have made progress and we are at a time when they definitely are changing their lives through the orchestra." "We dream that families and children can have a better house and Internet access, so they can connect with opportunities."
Momentum is definitely building. The Paraguayan government body FONDAC is providing support for a music school, and a recently released excerpt [above] of a documentary about the project is making its way around the Internet. The film, "Landfill Harmonic," is currently in production. It does not yet have a distributor, but it's expected to be finished in 2013.
Meanwhile, Chavez will continue his work in Cateura. "Sports can be competitive. Music causes children to connect and feel they are building something together. Our orchestra feels special because the children make beauty out of garbage."