Faraway: Get Out of Your World
The Junkyard Musicians of Paraguay
Every now and then I wonder what’s going on in obscure countries of the world that rarely make the international news. Take Paraguay. What’s going on in that quiet little country tucked in the middle of South America?
Well, for one thing, the economy is going strong, in fact, Paraguay is the fastest growing economy in the Americas. They’re doing this by becoming the world’s top supplier of soybeans. Good news for big agricultural interests and bad news for environmentalists. Here’s a story in Rolling Stone and a report in the PanAm Post if you feel like exercising your fiscally curious brain cells.
As for me, I felt a need to find a Paraguayan story to fuel my artistic reserves and came across one emanating from the junkyard outside of Asunción, the largest city in Paraguay: Their Instruments May Be Garbage, But the Music Will Bring Tears to Your Eyes
Rodolfo Madero is making a movie about it. Here’s an excerpt from the article in Mother Jones:
Juan Manuel Chavez is a cellist in the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra in Cateura, an Asunción slum where bottle caps, door keys, and paint cans have been given new purpose. Under the supervision of local musician Favio Chávez, these utterly impoverished kids make beautiful music on instruments constructed almost entirely out of materials reclaimed from the dump. The idea for the orchestra first came about after Chávez brought a youth orchestra from the neighboring town of Carapeguá to perform in Cateura. The Cateura kids wanted to learn, too, but as Chávez points out in the teaser, "A community like Cateura is not a place to have a violin. In fact, a violin is worth more than a house here."
So he and local garbage picker Nicolás Gómez began experimenting with instruments they constructed from trash: Tin water pipes, buttons, bottle caps, and spoon and fork handles make up the body and keys of the saxophones. Oil or paint cans and recycled wood are used for the string section.
The orchestra has already traveled to Brazil and Colombia, and has been invited to perform in Japan, India, Europe, and the United States this year. One of the program's flute players now plays for Paraguay's national orchestra, and the Miami Symphony Orchestra has offered scholarships for a couple of the students to join their youth symphony.
Beyond the music, Landfill Harmonic has an obvious environmental message. Some 2,500 families live in Cateura, and according to a 2010 UNICEF report, it is "the final dumping site for more than 1,500 tons of solid waste each day." Filmmaker Nash notes in the press materials that the town gets flooded with contaminated water whenever it rains: "The lack of environmental education is an issue, as well as the garbage/recycling system, which is archaic." And because of the landfill's location along the Paraguay River, inadequate waste management in Cateura is threatening an essential national water source. "What these kids are showing us is that you shouldn't throw away your things or people just because of the way that they look," Madero told me. "They represent the fact that not everything is disposable."
While the project may be small, Madero says, it should be replicable, and will inspire people to consider the social and environmental impacts of their own behavior. Health and environmental organizations in Kenya, Mexico, and Haiti, he says, have expressed interest in launching similar projects in their countries.
"It's been an important change for the community to see these kids rising above the reality that they live in a landfill," Madero says, adding that he knows some parents who were inspired to quit using drugs after their kids took up music. What's more, money left over from the orchestra's performances goes into a fund that provides small no-interest loans to the families to repair homes or build extra rooms. "Community wise it's very, very significant," he says.
For more information on the film, click here