Imagine you are in primary school, but aren’t expected to finish. Drugs and gangs are rampant. You live on the edge of a landfill site, and your parents eke out a living by sorting through the garbage for things they can sell. The best you can reasonably hope for is to be a scavenger too.
Then one day, someone who you have seen around the dump for a few months wants to know if you would like to learn to play the guitar.
This is exactly what happened to kids in Cateura, a village built practically on top of the landfill that serves the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion. The man with the guitar was Favio Chavez, an ecologist and musician.
At first, parents were skeptical. Forty per cent of children do not finish school because their parents need them to work. “There is an idea that nothing is worth studying,” Mr. Chavez says, “because the study does not help them to eat.’ ”
But some families stepped forward. Music might keep kids off the streets, and they could play with Mr. Chavez’s instruments. Soon, however, more children wanted to learn and there were not enough instruments to go around. So Mr. Chavez came up with an innovative solution: He made instruments out of recycled material from the landfill.
The string instruments have traditional fingerboards, scrolls and strings, but the other bits are made from whatever Mr. Chavez could find – tail pieces made of forks, tuning pegs made from gnocchi moulds. An added benefit: Children with recycled instruments do not have to worry about theft, or having a relative sell their instrument to buy food (or drugs).
Mr. Chavez now teaches music full-time (he has 50 students) and has toured what he calls his Recycled Orchestra to Rio de Janeiro, Panama and Bogota. There is also a documentary in the works, titled Landfill Harmonic. It’s not out until next year, but a trailer for it has gone viral. www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXynrsrTKbI
Fame is not the goal, though. “Doing music causes children to connect in a special way and feel they are building beauty together,” Mr. Chavez says. “This is the essence of our orchestra.”