How do you invest in music when you can’t afford instruments?
In Paraguay, 1.5 tonnes of rubbish are deposited daily in Cateura, a landfill site on the outskirts of the capital, Asuncian. An estimated 500 gancheros (recyclers) separate the plastic and aluminium, while their children play amid the rubbish and wait for parents to finish work, and live in the slums in the swamps between the capital and the river Paraguay. The country has the fastest growing population in the Americas – and a corresponding sharp rise in the percentage of people below the poverty line (34.7% in 2010).
In 2006, Favio Chavez worked on the landfill site during the week and conducted a youth orchestra at weekends in the small town of Carapegua. When he brought the group to perform in Cateura, the gancheros asked him to teach their children to play music. But as the number of children under his tutelage increased, he realised they needed to practise at home… but a violin is worth more than a recycler’s house, and he couldn’t provide instruments.
Instead, he experimented by making instruments from the rubbish outside their houses. With the help of colleagues, he discovered the materials that were most comfortable, which projected the right sounds and which withstood the tension of the strings.
Now, he travels to Cateura three times a week to dig out material. Metal oven trays are shaped with electric saws into violins and oil barrels form cellos. He sculpts old strips of wood into the necks for string instruments.
Chavez is the conductor of Paraguay’s one and only landfill orchestra: The Cateura Orchestra of Recycled Instruments. The 30 school children who play are sons and daughters of the recyclers.
But learning an instrument is about more than making music. The required mentality helps lift children out of poverty.
“Poor people need to eat today,” he said, in this Guardian article. “They don’t think about tomorrow’s problems. But learning music means you have to plan. It’s very challenging to explain to a child who lives in adverse conditions that if his dream is to play piano he needs to sit on a stool for five hours a day.”
Jorge Rios, a 35-year-old recycle, said many parents struggle to see the advantages of art. “Most tell their kids that a violin can’t feed you, that they need to work to eat,” he said. “But thanks to that violin my kids have seen new countries. They have an opportunity for a better future.”
The orchestra now receives worldwide acclaim, with their first concert outside of South America in Amsterdam in April. This year they will play in Argentina, the US, Canada, Palestine, Norway and Japan. Chavez was also invited to play at the Meltdown festival in London, in June.