Ruben Hernandez

Landfill Harmonic

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lharmonicThe lilting, graceful notes of Mozart’s “A Little Night Music” emanate from a violin made from a battered aluminum salad bowl with dinner-fork tuning pegs for strings. Tania Vera is the 15-year-old violinist. She, her mother and sisters live in a wooden shack surrounded by a contaminated stream in Cateura, a shantytown atop one of Paraguay’s largest landfills.  

Tania and 19 other children in the orchestra, named La Orquesta de Instrumentos reciclados de Cateura (“The Cateura Orchestra of Recycled Instruments”), perform classical music by Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, as well as pop by the Beatles, Henry Mancini and even Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” About 120 children have gone through this music training program, and currently 50 students are taking lessons.

Most of these young musicians are sons and daughters of parents so poor they must settle on the trash hills near Paraguay’s capital city of Asunción and pick through society’s cast-offs to eke out a living. In effect, these families are throwaway people that have found a useful, needed niche – they recycle the tons of garbage that the nearby metropolis sends to them daily.  

One man, Flavio Chavez, an environment engineer and music teacher who started the orchestra, has created a remarkable story of hope amid squalor, beauty amid trash, and has discovered innovative ways to address the major global themes of our time – poverty and garbage management. What he has accomplished in Cateura offers creative ways to promote “green” ideas while encouraging young people born in poverty to improve their lives.    

One of the handiest shantytown dwellers, Nicolas Gomez, a former carpenter known as “Cola,” has re-purposed dump trash into instruments that have thrilled audiences. Cast-off X-ray film becomes drum skin. Metal cans become the body of a classical guitar. A tall barrel transforms into a double bass violin. A tin can forms the body of a cello. Tito Romero, the other luthier of the orchestra, makes the wind instruments such as saxophones, made of water pipes, metal bottle caps, plastic bottoms, metal spoons and fork candles. Their instruments are rasquache, a term coined by Chicano artists that means high quality aesthetic expressions from recycled discards.

All these young musicians make impeccable sounds with their instruments and, thanks to a trio of filmmakers from the Valley, their inspiring story is setting the music world abuzz.

The fame of this unusual music group has spread to other developing countries and to the United States on account of the Landfill Harmonic documentary, and the passionate, talented filmmakers behind it. 

In April, the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix plans to host a permanent exhibit of the recycled instruments.

A documentary is born

The genesis of the Landfill Harmonic film occurred when Phoenix filmmaker Alejandra Amarilla Nash (founder and executive producer) contacted Juliana Penaranda-Loftus (producer) to work on a documentary about the underserved children of Paraguay.  Together, they started an extensive research process in 2009, during which they traveled to Paraguay to interview different leads, among them:  the Minister of Education of Paraguay, community leaders, school principals and children from low-income families.  

Through their research, Alejandra and Juliana discovered the Recycled Orchestra. In 2010, they returned to Paraguay to do some initial filming. Since then, the production team has developed strong connections with the orchestra and the community and continue to follow the story to the present.

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