Making music out of trash

Orchestra selects slum kids in Paraguay to play instruments made out of materials from landfill

Members of the Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura – or the Recycled Instruments Orchestra of Cateura – in front of their music school in Cateura, Paraguay. Thanks to donations, they now have conventional instruments they use in rehear
Members of the Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura – or the Recycled Instruments Orchestra of Cateura – in front of their music school in Cateura, Paraguay. Thanks to donations, they now have conventional instruments they use in rehearsals. But they continue to play on the homemade instruments for performances. They have performed in many countries, including Japan. PHOTO: LANDFILL HARMONIC

WHILE many of the children in Paraguay's Cateura slum dream of becoming football players or pop stars, Mr Brandon Cobone's ticket out of the shanty town is something more unusual.

It is a Frankenstein of a double bass, cobbled together from garbage plucked from the nearby landfill. 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 children from the slum the skills to build a better future.

The orchestra was created almost by accident by environmental engineer Favio Chavez, a music lover who was working with the gancheros, or garbage pickers, who comb the vast landfill for recyclables. "It started with a simple comment," he said, referring to the gancheros' request, after learning of his musical skills, that he give their children lessons.


  • Cattle-raising toughest subject

    FORGET chemistry or physics. Many students at the Escuela Agricola de San Francisco, or the San Francisco Agricultural School, would say cattle­ raising is their toughest subject.

    The boarding school, which is about 45km outside the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion, was founded some 12 years ago by a local non-profit.

    The school has an innovative business model which centres on self- sufficiency. The school's three billion guarani (S$778,500) annual operating budget is covered by the sale of meat, eggs, yoghurt, cheese and produce raised by its students.

    It has about 150 students aged between 15 and 18, who spend one week on the farm and the next in the classroom.

    Classes start at 7.30am and end only some 12 hours later.

    The teenagers learn entrepreneurial skills that allow them to turn subsistence farms into thriving businesses.


    Tuning in for lessons

    WITH a Spanish textbook next to her, Ms Kathia Varela adjusts the dial of her old radio to tune in to the Catholic radio station La Voz de Suyapa or "The Voice of Suyapa".

    At 5pm, the "show" she is waiting for comes on air: El Maestro en Casa, which means "Teacher at Home", by the Honduran Institute of Education by Radio. Ms Varela, 18, is among 50,000 Hondurans enrolled in elementary and high school through an innovative programme that combines the use of textbooks with classes delivered via radio.

    Students also attend face­to­face tutorials as part of the programme which the institute has been running since 1989.

    The institute provides elementary, middle and high school education for a small monthly payment of 100 lempiras (S$6).

    Most of its students are working adults aged from 14 to 60. About 70 per cent of them are women, many of whom are single mothers. To date, over 500,000 have graduated from its programme.


    Meals for kids, jobs for mums

    WHILE their children attend classes at the Mano Amiga Academy, the mothers work at a cafeteria run by the school.

    The cafeteria, Bistro 3846, supplies healthy meals to different private schools in Manila.

    It also provides jobs for mothers without a steady income, and helps fund scholarships for needy children in the school.

    Over the past seven years, Filipino educator Eleanor "Lynn" Pinugu has transformed the non-profit school into a self-sustaining institution.

    "We realised that donation was not a sustainable way to fund the operations of the school, especially if we'd like to achieve scale," said the 30-year-old.

    Inspired by Mano Amiga Academy, Mexico's international school for poor children, Ms Pinugu helped set up the Mano Amiga Academy in Taguig City in 2008.


Mr Chavez soon ran into a problem. He did not own enough instruments to go around. So he took 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 acknowledged, saying the next few instruments, including a "guitar" cut out of a piece of wood with a couple of strings attached, were not much better.

Mr Chavez teamed up with one of the gancheros, a skilled carpenter named Mr Nicolas Gomez, to make a variety of instruments that looked more or less like the

real thing and sounded like it too.

Now the orchestra has most of the instruments used in a conventional orchestra, but made out of cooking pots, bottle tops, melted keys and the like.

It became an international phenomenon after some filmmakers posted a trailer for a documentary, Landfill Harmonic, on the Web in 2012. Since then, it has been flooded with invitations to perform, from Germany to Japan. It even toured South America as an opening act for Metallica.

Mr Chavez said the orchestra's key aim is not about forging world-class musicians. "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.

"In the Orquesta, the role models are the hardest workers, those with the most dedication, the most commitment."

The 40-plus orchestra members are selected not for their innate musicality, but for the keenness with which they attend Saturday morning lessons. They must attend weekly rehearsals, where they prepare a repertory that includes classics like Beethoven's 5th Symphony, as well as traditional Paraguayan tunes.

Thanks to donations, they now have conventional instruments, which they use in rehearsals. But they continue to play on the homemade instruments for their performances.

Mr Cobone, who has visited 15 countries with the orchestra, said: "I've always wanted to travel, but I never imagined it would happen... and especially not because of this."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'Making music out of trash'. Subscribe