From trash to Tchaikovsky in a Paraguay slum

The Recycled Instruments Orchestra brings music and hope to slum children

In a Paraguayan slum people of all ages have learned, out of necessity, to create musical instruments made entirely out of rubbish. Video: LandfillHarmonic

Many of the young people in the Cateura slum in Asunción, Paraguay's capital, pin their hopes on landing careers as football players or pop stars. Brandon Cobone's plan, on the other hand, involves a recycled double bass.

His instrument was cobbled together from garbage plucked from the nearby landfill that gives Cateura both its name and its smell.

The 18-year-old is a member of the Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura, the Recycled Instruments Orchestra of Cateura, which uses music to give the children of the slum the skills to build a better future.

The orchestra was created almost by accident by Favio Chávez, a music-loving environmental engineer who was working with the gancheros, the garbage pickers who comb the vast landfill for recyclables.


"It started with a simple comment," he says, referring to the gancheros' request, after learning of Chávez's music skills, that he give their kids lessons. Chávez soon ran into a stumbling block. He didn't own enough instruments to go around, especially as his students' zeal sometimes resulted in inadvertently smashed guitars or cracked violins.

And so Chávez resolved to take advantage of one resource he had in abundance: trash. He made a violin out of a strainer, a metal dish and metal tubing. “It didn’t sound like much,” he says, adding that the next few instruments, including a guitar cut out of a piece of wood with a couple of strings attached, were not much better.

So Chávez teamed up with one of the gancheros, a carpenter named Nicolás Gómez, to make a variety of instruments that looked and sounded more or less like the real thing. Now the orchestra has versions of most of the instruments in a conventional set-up, concocted from cooking pots, bottle tops and melted keys.

The orchestra won acclaim online when a group of film-makers posted a teaser for a documentary, called Landfill Harmonic, online in 2012. The documentary premiered at the South by Southwest festival this year. Since then the group has been flooded with invitations to play stages from Germany to Japan – and even toured South America as an opening act for Metallica.

Sandwiched between the landfill and the River Paraguay, the Cateura slum is a collection of low-slung homes, some made from raw brick and others pasted together from corrugated tin and recuperated trash. Sewage runs in muddy streets pocked with giant puddles of standing water and strewn with detritus fallen from the constant comings-and-goings of fetid garbage trucks.

The air is sour with the stench of the landfill, where many of the slum's 20,000-plus residents make a living as gancheros. And when the river floods, as it did last year, Cateura is submerged.

Chávez says the orchestra is less about forging world-class musicians than turning disenfranchised kids into fully fledged citizens. “Are they all going to be professional musicians? I don’t think so,” he says. “What we want is to teach a different way of being, to instil in them different values than those that hold sway in their community. There the role models are the gang leaders, who impose themselves through violence and dominance,” he says. “In the orchestra the role models are the hardest workers, those with the most dedication, the most commitment.”

The 40-plus musicians are selected for their dedication to Saturday-morning lessons. Once chosen they must also attend weekly rehearsals, where they prepare a repertoire that includes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Thanks to donations, the musicians now have conventional instruments that they use in rehearsals. But they continue to play on the home-made instruments, an integral part of the orchestra’s identity, for performances.

"In Cateura nothing is formal, nothing is planned and everything happens almost spontaneously," says the French-born assistant director Thomas Lecourt, adding that their first international tours were logistical nightmares because many of the children didn't have passports or even birth certificates. The rehearsals, the trips, the responsibility of being in the orchestra brings structure to their lives."

On a narrow site in the middle of the slum, workmen are busy building the orchestra’s first permanent space.

Already a small cadre of teenage girls scratch out basic notes on their violas, apparently deaf to the cacophony of hammering, sawing and drilling all around. Boys making snare drums out of wood and metal scraps, with old X-rays as skins, add to the tumult.

“Joining the orchestra put me on a different track in life,” says Andrés Riveros, a 20-year-old saxophonist in his first year of college. “And lucky for that, because a lot of my friends who didn’t join are either drug addicts or in prison by now.”

Cobone, who has visited about 15 countries with the orchestra, is also preparing to go to college. “From the time I was little I always wanted to travel, but I never imagined it would happen . . . and especially not because of this,” he says, gesturing to his double bass, discarded wooden beams and a dented steel drum that once contained calcium carbide.

Published as part of Impact Journalism Day, June 20th, 2015

Slim pickings 15 million people worldwide make their livings from dumps

More than 15 million people around the world are estimated to make their livings from picking through waste. At the 12-hectare Dandora dump in Nairobi, health risks and international pressure have not deterred workers from scavenging in one of the largest dumps in Africa.

The dump has been considered full for more than 10 years, but more than 850 tonnes of rubbish still arrive every 24 hours. An estimated 10,000 people scour the site each day for material to sell in the nearby slum of Korogocho. More than half of the pickers are under 18, and they typically earn just under €1 a day.

Predictably, workers suffer from a myriad of health issues. “Because it’s an informal living that they’re making, workers don’t have any protective materials. There are no boots, no masks,” says Wendy Erasmus, Concern’s country director for Kenya.

A 2007 study by the United Nations Environment Programme found levels of lead in the soil almost 10 times the safe maximum, and half the children at the site had blood-lead levels far exceeding international standards.

Other hazards, including walking unprotected among medical and chemical waste and breathing in toxic fumes from routine methane fires, have led to widespread asthma and endocrine diseases.

When the Kenyan government tried to close the dump because of environmental concerns in 2011, workers took to the streets in protest. Those at the site said that it would cut off their sole source of income. “It’s a catch-22,” Erasmus says. “People are making a living off that dump. If the dump is moved to a new site very many people will lose their livelihood.”

New opportunities are slowly opening up in the area. Four years ago Concern launched a programme that offered €200 to workers looking to learn vocational skills and establish businesses. Ninety per cent have reported some measure of success.

Korogocho’s inclusion in the Nairobi county development plan could offer residents further hope. For now, Erasmus says, progress feels slow. “When you look at things like trying to find funding for malnutrition, we don’t have difficulty. It’s really looking at the urban context that donors seem to shy away from.”

- Fintan Burke