Paraguay’s Junk Orchestra

ASUNCION — One person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure.

In the outskirts of the capital Asuncion, Mozart and Beethoven symphonies resonate near Paraguay‘s largest landfill.

The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura is a glimmer of hope, where 40,000 people live in the deepest poverty.

Musicians aged from 8 to 19 play music with recycled instruments from a nearby rubbish dump.

In a neighbourhood where people salvage trash and youngsters face social exclusion, the orchestra is a life-changing project.

And it’s struck a chord with an international audience.

Thanks to crowdfunding, these once amateur musicians have been polished into seasoned performers, with gigs across the globe.

They are invited to perform concerts in countries they have never dreamt of seeing. They even played for the Queen of Spain.

The unconventional music school teaches impoverished students how to make instruments from recycled material, in a shantytown where a violin could cost more than a house.

Scraps of filthy oil cans, utensils and other rubbish have been shaped to make finely tuned musical instruments, like a drainpipe saxophone with keys made of bottle caps.

The orchestra’s director, Favio Chavez, embarked on a mission 10 years ago to transform the lives of impoverished children through music.

An ecological consultant and a music teacher, Chavez also uses music to address extreme poverty.

This is music to the ears of bass player Brandon Cobone, who never thought he would leave his hometown.

He says he was touched in particular by the impact music can have on communities in Israel and Palestine, where he travelled with the orchestra.

“(This music project) opened my mind. I was a kid when I started, I was 14. It helped me mature and see things differently, especially social and political issues in our country as well as many other things that make you see the reality of where you live and who you are.”

Chavez realised the need of the community when he worked on a recycling programme in Cateura in 2006.

“(This project) combines aspects of novelty, social integration and inclusion. It is based on social equity. I think that it demonstrates in a very special way that music is so powerful that it can transform lives, even precarious ones,” he says.

Even though there is little governmental help for this creative initiative in the South American nation, the orchestra reached its zenith when musicians toured the region alongside the American heavy metal giants, Metallica. They also supported Megadeth.

“My life changed a lot. I never thought I would travel to such beautiful countries. I love music,” says violinist Cynthia Servin.

The nine-year old girl has been playing the violin for three years.

Despite the orchestra’s international fame, the slum’s residents still live in precarious conditions, amidst extreme poverty, rampant illiteracy and drug trafficking.

“Our life is still the same. I want her to do what she likes. Music suits her. She wants to study without giving up the orchestra. She does not want to leave the orchestra,” says Cynthia’s father, an electrician.

Now Cynthia is thrilled to be packing her suitcase.

The orchestra is heading to Vancouver, Canada to perform at various schools and a museum.

For 8-year old Celeste Fleitas, music has also helped reunite families.

“In Spain I met my grandmother for the first time, my dad’s mother. It was very moving to see my grandmother for the first time. The orchestra allowed me to stay five days at her home. She will now come here,” she says.

A catalyst for social change, the music school has a solidarity fund to help children’s families in the event of a birth, death or accident.

From classical music to jazz and bossa nova, the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura has inspired music aficionados across the planet.

Similar orchestras, possibly inspired by the Paraguayans, have been created in Mexico, Ecuador, Panama, Brazil, Burundi and Spain.

This video was produced exclusively for The Associated Press in May 2016. It was released on July 2, 2016. Click here to watch it. If the link does not work, search: Paraguay junk orchestra.

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