Recycling the Orchestra


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Favio Chavez.

When Favio Chavez first arrived in Cateura, Paraguay in 2006 there was no music. He heard the scrapings of trash collectors, the cries of children playing in the rubble.

The young ecologist was on an assignment to work with a recycling project in the small village. It wasn’t until he arrived that he realized the village was the landfill.

“This is not a place where people are meant to live,” Chavez tells BTR. “This is where the city dumps their garbage.”

He’s not kidding. Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, sends their waste two hours away to Cateura for sorting and recycling. It’s the country’s main landfill. The 2,500 families living in the slum struggle to earn their living from sifting through the endless fields of garbage.

A report from UNICEF published in 2010 revealed that more than 1,500 tons of solid waste arrives in Cateura every day. The water supply is so polluted that intense rainfall floods the village with contaminated water.

As if the environmental hazards weren’t dire enough, societal issues plague the village. Illiteracy is rampant, and many of the children grow into young adults with drug addictions or join gangs.

Chavez had an idea. Environmental technology might have been his focal point of study, but music has always been his passion. It’s what has allowed him to feel the most intense connections between other people in his life.

Chavez fell in love with the guitar as a boy, and by the age of 11 was appointed the choir director at his church in Carapegua, a village located outside the capital. He went on to direct several musical groups, including an orchestra in his home town–all the while studying ecological concerns and solutions. By the time he was sent to Cateura to teach trash pickers self-protection tactics, his ears were buzzing with notes of possibility.

“Those experiences as a musical director gave me so much inspiration to pass along to the kids, even when they seemed like they had nothing to give,” says Chavez. “To have nothing is not an excuse to do nothing.”

Holding that sentiment close, Chavez sought a way to open his very own music school in Cateura. The idea was to give the children something else to do besides work and help eliminate the eventual turn to self-destructive habits.

Much to his chagrin, however, the resources were insurmountably stacked against him. The village was home to hundreds, if not thousands, of children in need. Due to virtually nonexistent funding, Chavez only had five instruments at his school’s disposal.

Instead of accepting defeat, the ever-creative ecologist turned toward the only resources he had available: what was being disposed.

The first instrument they made out of the garbage was a violin. It was fashioned out of a broken noodle colander.

“The sound quality was very poor,” remarks Chavez. “We never imagined we would be able to get a sound out of an instrument made out from garbage like the ones the children are playing currently.”

Skepticism abounds, surely. How good can a trash instrument sound?

Hear the magic for yourself.

With both eyes closed, it’s hard to believe that the 19 year-old Bebi isn’t summoning the spirit of Bach from a warm spruce-topped cello. Instead, his cello is assembled from an oil can, discarded wood, and a beef tenderizing tool.

Yet the familiar notes sound just as sublime, perhaps tickling the ear in both subtle and new ways.

Chavez couldn’t do it alone. He joined forces with garbage picker Nicolas Gomez, who also happened to be an exceptional luthier. Gomez moved to Cateura after 30 years spent performing hard construction–a job he slaved over to help feed his eight brothers and sisters that were left without a father.

“What first struck me was his simplicity and great humility as a person,” Chavez reflects. “He has been an infinite source of inspiration for me.”

In 2011 Chavez quit his job to dedicate himself full-time to the project. Utilizing recycled wood pallets, tin cans, forks, coins, door keys, bottle caps, shirt buttons, and oil drums, both Chavez and Gomez have created the Recycled Orchestra.

While they can’t pinpoint an exact number, Chavez estimates that they have created more than 200 instruments. His favorite, of course, is the guitar.

By the time filmmaker Brad Allgood arrived in the small village, the Recycled Orchestra was already well underway. The filmmaker was brought onboard a documentary called The Landfill Harmonic, which sought to capture the inspiring work Chavez was doing for the community.

Photo courtesy of Favio Chavez.

He didn’t have to sift through garbage, but Allgood did have hundreds of hours worth of material to edit. He started cutting the film, and was soon transitioned into a directorial role as he tried to find a cohesive vision for the material that had been shot over nearly five years of production.

“We had multiple muti-cam concert shoots, multiple formats, external audio,” he tells BTR. “It was a mountain of footage to deal with.”

The next hurdle was finding a way to finance the film. Allgood and producers decided to start a Kickstarter campaign to bring The Landfill Harmonic to a worldwide audience. To the joy of everyone involved, they met their intended May 15, 2014 deadline and secured funding to pursue distribution.

When Chavez and Allgood sat down with BTR, it was only hours after The Landfill Harmonic premiered at SXSW. The director was overcome with reverie as he recalled a standing ovation and audience members with tears in their eyes. The children from Cateura even took to the stage for the Recycled Orchestra’s first international performance.

The two men radiate love and gratuity as they share the most important lessons that they’ve learned along the way.

“One of the ironies of innovation is that it often requires limitation,” reflects Allgood. “Being resourceful, never giving up, and working hard will lead to a meeting of goals.”

He goes on to add that just because you don’t have what the world says you need to accomplish something doesn’t mean that you should give up trying.

“Never stop dreaming,” he says. “Even if you have very little in life, you can do great things with that little bit you have.”

To hear the rest of our interview with Chavez and Allgood, tune into this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly.