The world sent them garbage, they sent back beauty

By | Art & Design
Tania, 13 years old, a member of the Recycled Orchestra, Courtesy of Landfill Harmonic movie

Nowadays many countries in the third world have to deal with pollution-related issues and the large impact of waste on their physical and social environment. Nevertheless in some places people have found a way to turn waste into a resource for the communities. It is the case for the slum built on the landfill of Cateura, a dump site just outside Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital.

A really interesting and challenging artistic project and social phenomenon that came out of environmental issues related to the impact of waste in the area of Cateura is known under the name of “Recycled Orchestra” or “Landfillharmonics”.

Nicolas Gomez "Cola" Luthier & Garbage picker, Courtesy of Landfill Harmonic movie

Nicolas Gomez “Cola” Luthier & Garbage picker, Courtesy of Landfill Harmonic movie

The slum of Cateura is literally built on the landfill and nearly half of the children in the area have to work to help their families. Favio Chávez, environmental engineer and musician who worked at a recycling program at the landfill from 2006 to 2008 decided to start teaching music to the kids in the slum to keep them away from the dump and social issues related to drugs and crime. Many people in the area work in the landfill as “garbage pickers” for recycling; one of them, Nicolás Gómez “Cola” joined the founder in the project of teaching music to the children of the slum, building instruments from recycling material and organizing an orchestra.

Chávez’s project proved to be successful with more and more students joining his classes and building their own instruments. The project had a large impact on the community living in the slum; in some cases it brought children closer to their parents who had previously abandoned them, helped both children and parents to get documents like passports to be able to travel for concerts, and occasionally even motivated some parents to stay away from drugs and improve their level of education.

Favio and Nicolas started to make instruments from trash taken from the landfill; the body and tuning pegs for violins and cellos could be easily realized and assembled with nearly everything 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.” For the children, to make their own instruments is cheaper than buying new ones but is also safer since new instruments would value more than their own houses.

Looking at the aesthetics results the analogy with the instruments depicted by Braque and Picasso with the technique of collage or papier collé at the beginning of the 20th Century is incredibly interesting. If those built out of thrown away newspapers were imaginary ones these, made out of recycling material, are real ones and play real music.

Chávez has taught to more than 100 children and is currently teaching music to 50 students 25 of which are part of the “Recycled Orchestra”. In 2011 Chávez left his job to dedicate full time to the project. The Orchestra recently toured to Rio de Janeiro, Bogota and Panama and a documentary film on the project started in 2010 is now on its way to completion.

Recycled Orchestra Cateura, Courtesy of Landfill Harmonic movie

Recycled Orchestra Cateura, Courtesy of Landfill Harmonic movie

In addition the world largest Musical Instruments Museum, MIM in Scottsdale (AZ) is going to set up a permanent exhibition of the recycled instruments which will be part of the Latin-American wing of the museum. The Orchestra might be invited in occasion of the opening. This will be an opportunity  for both the Orchestra and the film project to gain more visibility and financial aid from corporate sponsors.

The commitment of Chávez to the Recycled Orchestra (or Los Reciclados) is aimedat changing the social and living conditions of a community rather than at discovering talents. The Orchestra and the related documentary film are bringing awareness on topics of sustainability and the powerful changing role that education and creativity can have in disadvantaged communities. Both human lives and waste are brought to new life by projects like this; “the world sends us garbage, we send back music”.

The Recycled Orchestra is an example of a revolutionary attitude towards environment, education, art and social issues. How can institutions learn from this experience to build up programs which are really beneficial for underprivileged communities?


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