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Saturday, 26 April 2014

Recycled Orchestra: Music from the Soul

   Last night I was privileged to hear youths from Paraguay perform orchestral pieces on instruments made from items reclaimed from the landfill of its capital city, Asuncion.  The "Recycled Orchestra" from the slum of Cateura actually boasts 160 members, but just 16 are taking part in this Canadian tour.
   I first read about the ingenuity of this orchestra through an associated press article in December 2012.  I was so inspired that I kept it.  The orchestra is the brain child of its conductor, Fabio Chavez, a music teacher and social worker.  At first, he had only five instruments to share among the many interested youngsters.  Then, he recruited Tito Romero and Nicolas Gomez to build brass, woodwind and stringed instruments out of the resources brought to the city dump.  I testify that the sounds these instruments produce are as authentic as they are unique.
   As the conductor allowed various students to introduce themselves and their instruments, the audience was told which raw materials went into each one.  A 30 litre can that used to contain vegetable oil forms the body of the cello, while the downspout of an eaves trough, assorted buttons, handles of metal spoons and guarani coins became an alto-saxophone.
Photo of cello and player courtesy of Rebecca Bertrand

Close up of saxophone courtesy of Rebecca Bertrand

   The music performed by this ensemble included Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Henry Mancini and Pachelbel. The conductor, who used head, lip and eye gestures to direct his orchestra, accompanied them on his metal-based guitar (see bottom of next photo).  The concert was closed by traditional music from Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia.
Foreground: Fabio Chavez, conductor, and 15 year-old player of the upright bass.  Photo credit: Rebecca Bertrand.
  Mr. Chavez shared many jokes and insights through a translator, but one thing he said sticks with me.  He said, "Talent is evenly distributed among humanity, but opportunity is not."  When the audience was invited to contribute an offering instead of an admission fee, they were helping to extend opportunity to the youth in the Cateura slum to have a better future than their parents, who work in the toxic environment of the landfill site.


  1. Hi Harriette,
    I am a student at Calvin Christian Collegiate and also had the privilege of seeing the recycled orchestra perform in Winnipeg. I enjoyed your description of the experience and feel the same way.
    Currently, I'm blogging for a project in Bible class and would like to write a post about the concert. Could I have permission to use some of the pictures that you posted? I was unable to get any that were good enough to use.


    1. You may use the photos, but please give credit to Rebecca Bertrand, who took them for me. Thank you.

  2. I was at the concert last night as well, and while I really want to believe that everything presented was genuine, there were certain things that really made me question whether they were.

    Firstly, there are the instruments themselves. It's not too hard to believe that the majority of the stringed instruments were made from refuse, but on closer inspection after the concert, there are certain parts of the instruments that certainly appear to be commercially manufactured. For example, the tuning pegs that I saw were almost certainly commercially made. The strings were also certainly real violin strings as they were wound. The bridge of some of the instruments looked as though they were commercially manufactured as well, though that is debatable. However, there can be no debate that all the bows being used were real bows and definitely not made out of garbage.

    The trumpets, flutes, and saxophones were all real instruments. The saxophone solo performance sounded better than most commercially made saxophones that I've heard. When I actually picked up the saxophone and fingered the keys, the action felt perfectly smooth, tight, and well regulated, just like a real instrument. It even had an imprinted stamp on the side of the bell that showed the music company that originally made it. I don't think a piece of downspout or scrap of galvanized tin, that they said the saxophone was made from, would have that. There were indeed guaneri's on the keys, but they were actually soldered or brazed onto real keys and action parts, not being used as the key itself, as they imply. In all honesty, it looked like a movie prop, where a real instrument is intentionally tarnished and otherwise made to look old, but retains all of its functionality. Reeds and mouthpieces were of course real.

    Where am I going with this? While I really want to believe it was all genuine, the critical thinking part of me can't help but suspect there is some theater in all of this, and that certain parts of the Recycled Orchestra are not as recycled as they would have us believe.

    1. Hello Anonymous,
      There are certain elements in a musical instrument that are non-negotiable, agreed. As well, there could be broken instruments brought to this Paraguayan landfill, which are then salvaged or repaired. Mr. Romero and Mr. Gomez may have access to certain used parts through their networks. The bottom line is that this group has used its limited resources to build something good among its youth. A normal violin, as Mr. Chavez stated at the concert I went to, is worth more than a house in Cateura and would be a target for thievery. These make-shift instruments cannot even be pawned, he said.