CLINE: The true story of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura

Todd Cline

Todd Cline

I don’t often encourage people to watch television shows, but this past Sunday night “60 Minutes” was a must see. If you happened to catch the segment by Bob Simon called “The Recyclers” you know what I mean. If not, it’s worth watching online via CBSnews.com.

It’s a very moving story, highlighting a poor village in Paraguay situated around a garbage dump where they’ve turned the trash into instruments for the children, who have formed the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura under the direction of Favio Chavez. Chavez is an environmental technician who came up with the idea to start a music school to help lift the children’s spirits amid the squalor.

After watching it, I dare you to come away without thanks for what you have and without a feeling that you really should do more with it. At its heart, that is what this story is. As Chavez says: “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.”

To call Cateura a poor area is an understatement. There is very little electricity or plumbing and it is one of the poorest places in South America, a byproduct of a decision by Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, to dump its trash there. Cateura grew around that trash, and the people who live there try to eke out an existence by picking through the garbage and selling scraps.

Those same scraps have been turned into instruments, with people like a local trash worker and carpenter named Don “Cola” Gomez methodically making them. It’s one of those things you have to see to believe, but Gomez has fashioned the pieces of garbage into violins, cellos, guitars and drums. Even the strings are made from recycled material. As Simon’s report says “the saxophones and trumpets are made from old drain pipes, the keys were once coins and bottle caps. This drum skin used to be an X-ray plate, the guitar from dessert tins.”

It is an amazing transformation, one that has included the children lucky enough to be part of the orchestra. In a place so poor and bereft of structure, music serves as both outlet and escape. In the piece, a young orchestra member named Ada Rios describes it this way through a translator:

“When I play the violin I feel like I am somewhere else. I imagine that I’m alone in my own world and forget about everything else around me and I feel transported to a beautiful place.

“… I’m transported to a place that is completely different to where I am now. It has clear skies, open fields and I see lots of green. It’s clean with no trash. There is no contamination where we live. It’s just me alone playing my violin.”

Between lines like that and the unselfishness of people like Gomez, who makes the instruments after long days of scrapping through the garbage, and Rios’ grandmother, who longs for her grandchildren to have a better life than hers, it’s an amazing example of the human spirit. And the music? Well, it’s impressive as well.

This unique orchestra was mostly anonymous, however, for years until a group of documentary filmmakers discovered it and posted a trailer for their movie “Landfill Harmonic.” From there social media took hold, bringing the orchestra to light and later to “60 Minutes.” The interest in the group has led to travel and concerts played away from home, and now the opening of the documentary is in the offing as is a world tour for 2014.

Instruments are being donated and money raised for the orchestra, and that combined with looming tour makes this real-life story more improbable than any Hollywood blockbuster. It’s wonderfully uplifting and a poignant reminder that so often we lament what we don’t have instead of turning what we do have into something of value.

Email Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.