Ecologist Favio Chavez first set foot in the landfill city of Cateura, Paraguay seven years ago. Some 2,500 families scrape out a living there, fishing and selling recyclables from the trash heap. Chavez started a music program to give kids an escape but quickly ran out of instruments. So Nicolas “Cola” Gomez, a garbage picker, helped him find a solution: use junk to make more.
Today, the program has grown into the world-renowned Recycled Orchestra. Their creations will soon be on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, and the project is the subject of the upcoming documentary Landfill Harmonic. Makeshift caught up with executive producer Rodolfo Madero to talk oil-can cellos and bottlecap trumpets.
Makeshift: Who came up with the idea to make instruments?
RM: Favio came up with the idea of building instruments out of recyclable materials, and Cola, who doesn’t have any experience in music, came up with the technique. And the quality of the instruments is amazing. They go and pick materials from the landfill or from restaurants and homes to find stuff that is usable. The kids are now participating and even building their own instruments. What’s the process like? They use everything that goes into a landfill—paper, cardboard, huge cans of oil, paint cans, pieces of wood to make violins. They have drums, guitars, cellos, and double basses; they have flutes from pie plates and coins, saxophones and trumpets from bottle caps, forks, spoons, and pieces of metal that they recycle.
It’s almost impossible to make strings from trash, so orchestras from all over the world, music schools, and shops are donating their used strings. And because they don’t have violin pegs, they created this technique that takes five pages of instruction to assemble. But it works!
Tell me about the musicians.
Everyone can join the orchestra. Right now, about 30 to 40 kids are part of this program, between eight and 19 years old. Their families go every day and pick up the trash and recycle it, and the kids do, too. Their houses are made out of whatever they find in the landfill.
Half of the kids’ lives is dedicated to the orchestra, and half is dedicated to normal schooling. Their parents sometimes want them to collect trash and would rather have them contributing to the day-to-day needs of the families than learn instruments. It has changed a little bit over the last year because now the kids are playing at venues where they are getting paid.
So kids are making and playing their own instruments. They must feel proud.
Actually, until recently it was a shame for them to be playing with instruments made out of trash. But lately, with all the media attention and the concerts they’ve given abroad, now they are very proud of who they are and where they come from. It’s something that has given them the promise of a future that is not what their parents do.