Landfill Harmonica
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The story of how a garbage picker and a musician turned recycled trash into Landfill Harmonic—now a world-famous orchestra

By Kristan Schiller

Cateura, Paraguay, a small city along the banks of the Paraguay River, is one of the poorest slums in Latin America. Atop a massive dump, more than 1,500 tons of waste arrive there each day, according to a 2010 UNICEF report. Prospects for most of the children born in Cateura are bleak, as gangs and drugs await many of them. But recently, a garbage picker named Nicolás Gómez (known as “Cola”) found a piece of trash that resembled a violin and brought it to local musician Favio Chávez to have a look. Using other objects collected from the dump, the pair constructed a functional violin, and then went on to build a cello, a flute and a drum. Suddenly, an idea dawned upon them: Could an orchestra be born from this misery, like a phoenix rising from the ashes? The answer was a resounding “yes.”

Landfill Harmonica orchestra

Officially named Orquesta de Reciclado de Cateura, the group has loosely become known as Landfill Harmonic—which is also the title of an upcoming documentary by filmmaker and Asunción native Alejandra Nash, who first heard about the orchestra in 2009. Slated for release this year, the movie tells the story of musicians such as Juan Manuel Chávez, whose cello is made from an oil barrel. Other musicians’ instruments are made from aluminum gutters, meat tenderizers and pasta makers.

The film celebrates the transformative power of music, while chronicling the serious issues of poverty and waste pollution. Nash hopes to motivate young people to be more creative and resourceful, be grateful for what they have and be more responsible with regard to the environment. The importance of being eco-conscious is a value that Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel* owners appreciate.

The documentary has received tremendous support and is currently being funded through Kickstarter. Its teaser, “The World Sends Us Garbage and We Send Back Music,” posted online in 2012, quickly went viral, with 2 million views on Vimeo and nearly 1 million on YouTube.

What’s most exciting about all this attention is that the orchestra now seems poised to offer many of the children from Cateura opportunities outside the slum. Under the supervision of Favio Chávez, the orchestra’s founder and director, an awe-inspiring ensemble of musicians has been given a new lease on life. Known for playing European classics and particularly proficient at performing Bach and Pachelbel, Landfill Harmonic recently finished a multi-city tour around the United States.

An “instrument bank” has been set up in Marina del Rey, California, where people can donate instruments to the children in the orchestra. Visit www.landfillharmonicmovie.com/ for more information.

The trademarks mentioned in this story are held by their respective owners.

Kristan Schiller, a Travel Editor at Fodor’s, is also a blogger and writer whose articles have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Town & Country, Organic Spa Magazine and Entrepreneur, as well as on the Huffington Post and Salon.com.


*Clean diesels generate at least 90% less nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate emissions when compared to previous-generation diesels.

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