Landfill Harmonic: Paraguay’s Recycled Orchestra

A music teacher helps children living by a Paraguay landfill site to reach stardom with instruments made from rubbish.

“To have nothing is not an excuse for doing nothing,” says Favio Chavez.

On the edges of the Cateura landfill near Paraguay’s capital, he teaches a group of children to play violins, cellos, saxophones, flutes and drums, all crafted from garbage.

Most people there make their living by collecting and selling plastic bottles or anything they can recycle from rubbish.

When the environmental consultant came to Cateura for a recycling project, he realised that the future of most children would be to work with garbage, just like their parents.

“Here in Paraguay, social conditions often limit the ability to dream. If you’re born in the wrong place, you don’t have the right to dream,” says Chavez. “When I was young, music was the first thing that gave me a sense of purpose.”

The news that he was offering free music classes to the children of the gancheros, or rubbish pickers, spread quickly, and many children showed up – more children than he had instruments.

For most of the 40,000 Cateura residents, a musical instrument is an unattainable treasure.

“In fact, a violin is worth more than a house,” Chavez says.

When he met Nicolas “Cola” Gomez, a rubbish picker who had some experience in carpentry, they began to wonder whether they could build instruments from the scraps they found on the landfill.

Since then, Cola has turned oil cans into cellos and violins, waterpipes into saxophones and X-rays into drumheads.

“When I played the first violin, it was a moment of enlightenment,” recalls Chavez. “Because we realised that it could function as a real musical instrument.”

The recycling project that originally brought Chavez to Cateura, failed. “But my failure, as if by magic, caused me to persist with the idea of the orchestra,” he says. “Music can change lives.”

When their story goes viral, the orchestra is catapulted into the global spotlight – suddenly facing a strange new world of arenas and sold-out concerts.

Landfill Harmonic follows the Recycled Orchestra from their music classes in Cateura to Denver, Colorado, doing a show with heavy metal group Megadeth.

However, when a natural disaster strikes their country, Chavez must find a way to keep the orchestra intact and provide a source of hope for their town.

Landfill harmonic - Witness - Do not use
Favio Chavez believes in the transformative power of music [Landfill Harmonic]


By Brad Allgood

For a documentary filmmaker, it is not often that a story comes along that captivates, inspires, entertains and educates all at once – and the story of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura does all of that. Never has a film project affected me as much as Landfill Harmonic, and the experience has reshaped my views of Latin American society as well as the possibilities that exist for all communities, no matter how impoverished.

The film is a modern-day fairytale that teaches important lessons of ingenuity, hard work, perseverance and the importance of dreaming.

Built in the shadow of a massive landfill, the community of Cateura survives by selling recyclable materials collected from the trash. There are no formal services, and educational opportunities are extremely limited.

Without the necessary tools to improve their quality of life, most children in Cateura are caught in the vicious cycle of poverty – often referred to as a “poverty trap” – where social and economic idiosyncrasies self-perpetuate a fatalistic worldview.

Most children cease to dream of a better future for themselves and their families. But something special happened in Cateura that is a rarity in our modern world.

Visionary music teacher Favio Chavez, humble trash picker-turned-luthier Nicolas “Cola” Gomez, and a group of dedicated kids joined forces to create a project intended to change the cultural tendencies of the community – and in that spirit, the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura was born.

What started as a simple idea to provide music education to children in Cateura is now the cultural centrepiece of the community and a source of inspiration for many around the world.

Landfill Harmonic - Witness - Do not use
Landfill Harmonic is a modern-day fairytale that teaches important lessons of ingenuity, hard work, perseverance and the importance of dreaming [Landfill Harmonic]

The Recycled Orchestra is a concrete example of how one simple idea can transform lives and provide an opportunity to transcend one’s situation in life.

As documentary subjects, Favio and the orchestra members were dignified and honest, and they confided their dreams and fears openly. Even when their community was in the midst of tragedy, they allowed us into their homes and trusted us with their emotions during their most vulnerable moments.

The experience of meeting the kids and families of Cateura while making this film taught me to be more appreciative of the opportunities that I’ve had throughout my life, and they will forever remain a source of inspiration and encouragement for me.

I can only hope that audiences who see this film will be moved in some small way and carry that same spark of inspiration with them. Like Favio says in the closing scene of the film, “To have nothing is not an excuse to do nothing.”

May we all take that lesson to heart and use the resources at our disposal to make the world a better place for future generations.

Challenges, Megadeth and the language of music

By Graham Townsley

This film was a collaborative process from beginning to end and a pleasure throughout. It went on for the best part of six years, guided always by executive producer Alejandra Amarilla and producer and co-director Juliana Penaranda-Loftus.

I came on board after the first shoots had already happened. I think all of us who worked on it were just so inspired by the orchestra and shared a simple, common goal: in as straightforward and direct a way as possible to tell the story of this amazing project, of the children who made up the orchestra, of the Asuncion slum from which it sprang and of the man who was the inspiration behind all of it, Favio Chavez.

This was, of course, much easier said than done. The themes here are big ones and managing them not easy: how great beauty can emerge from the bleakest poverty, how music can transform lives and how, as Favio says so eloquently at the end of the film, culture is a basic human need.

Landfill harmonic - Witness - Do not use
The Recycled Orchestra and Megadeth [Landfill Harmonic]

The challenge was to tell the story without romanticising poverty and without preaching, to somehow give the children and Favio their own voice and let their deep humanity speak.

There was also the dilemma of which episodes to focus on. Once the short promo about the orchestra went viral on the internet both we, as filmmakers, and the orchestra were showered with possibilities.

One of my favourite sequences, which I am so pleased we opted for, was the Megadeth story; so unlikely, so incongruous in a way but so beautiful and which, in a simple and direct way, shows so beautifully perhaps the central theme of the film: just how universal is the language of music.