CATEURA, Paraguay — The sounds of a classical guitar come from two big jelly cans. Used X-rays serve as the skins of a thumping drum set. A battered aluminum salad bowl and strings tuned with forks from what must have been an elegant table make a violin. Bottle caps work perfectly well as keys for a saxophone.
A chamber orchestra of 20 children uses these and other instruments fashioned out of recycled materials from a landfill where their parents eke out livings as trash-pickers, regularly performing the music of Beethoven and Mozart, Henry Mancini and the Beatles. A concert they put on for The Associated Press also featured Frank Sinatra’s "My Way” and some Paraguayan polkas.
Rocio Riveros, 15, said it took her a year to learn how to play her flute, which was made from tin cans. "Now I can’t live without this orchestra,” she said.
Word is spreading about these kids from Cateura, a vast landfill outside Paraguay’s capital where some 25,000 families live alongside reeking garbage in abject poverty.
The youngsters of "The Orchestra of Instruments Recycled From Cateura” performed in Brazil, Panama and Colombia this year, and hope to play at an exhibit opening next year in their honor at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
"We want to provide a way out of the landfill for these kids and their families. So we’re doing the impossible so that they can travel outside Paraguay, to become renowned and admired,” said Favio Chavez, a social worker and music teacher who started the orchestra.
The museum connection was made by a Paraguayan documentary filmmaker, Alejandra Amarilla Nash. She and film producer Juliana Penaranda-Loftus have followed the orchestra for years, joining Chavez in his social work while making their film "Landfill Harmonic” on a shoestring budget.
The documentary is far from complete. The kids still have much to prove. But last month, the filmmakers created a Facebook page and posted a short trailer on YouTube and Vimeo that has gone viral, quickly getting more than a million views altogether.
"It’s a beautiful story and also fits in very well with this theme of ingenuity of humans around the world using what they have at their disposal to create music,” said Daniel Piper, curator of the 5,000-instrument Arizona museum.
The community of Cateura could not be more marginalized. But the music coming from garbage has some families believing in a different future for their children.
"Thanks to the orchestra, we were in Rio de Janeiro! We bathed in the sea, on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. I never thought my dreams would become reality,” said Tania Vera, a 15-year-old violinist who lives in a wooden shack by a contaminated stream. Her mother has health problems, her father abandoned them, and her older sister left the orchestra after becoming pregnant. Tania, though, now wants to be a veterinarian, as well as a musician.
The orchestra was the brainchild of Chavez, 37. He had learned clarinet and guitar as a child, and had started a small music school in another town in Paraguay before he got a job with an environmental organization teaching trash-pickers in Cateura how to protect themselves.
Chavez opened a tiny music school at the landfill five years ago, hoping to keep youngsters out of trouble. But he had just five instruments to share, and the kids often grew restless, irritating Chavez’s boss.
So Chavez asked one of the trash-pickers, Nicolas Gomez, to make some instruments from recycled materials to keep the younger kids occupied.
"He found a drum and repaired it, and one thing led to another. Since he had been a carpenter, I asked him to make me a guitar. And so we just kept at it,” Chavez said.
Come April, the classical stringed instruments that Gomez has made in his workshop alongside his pigs and chickens will be on display in Phoenix alongside one of John Lennon’s pianos and Eric Clapton’s guitars.
"I only studied until the fifth grade because I had to go work breaking rocks in the quarries,” said Gomez, 48. But "if you give me the precise instructions, tomorrow I’ll make you a helicopter!”
The museum also will display wind instruments made by Tito Romero, who was repairing damaged trumpets in a shop outside Asuncion until Chavez came calling and asked him to turn galvanized pipe and other pieces of scavenged metal into flutes, clarinets and saxophones.
"It’s slow work, demanding precision, but it’s very gratifying,” Romero said. "Chavez is turning these kids of Cateura into people with a lot of self-esteem, giving them a shield against the vices.”
Ada Rios, a 14-year-old first violinist, greeted the AP with sleepy eyes and a wide smile at her family’s home on the banks of a sewage-filled creek that runs into the Paraguay River.
"The orchestra has given a new meaning to my life, because in Cateura, unfortunately, many young people don’t have opportunities to study, because they have to work or they’re addicted to alcohol and drugs,” she said.
Her little sister Noelia announced with the innocence of a 12-year-old that "I’m famous in my school thanks to being in the orchestra.”
Their 16-year-old aunt next door, Maria Rios, 16, also is a violinist.
"My mother signed me up in teacher Chavez’s school three years ago. I was really bothered that she hadn’t asked me first, but today I’m thankful because she put my name in as someone who wanted to learn violin,” Maria said.
Her mother, Miriam Rios, who has 14 children in all, said Maria was born when she was 45.
"My neighbors said she would be born with mental problems because I was so old, but an artist was born!” Rios said, her voice breaking with pride as she brushed away tears.
The children gathered in a schoolyard to perform for the AP, sharing their pride as they tuned their instruments.
Victor Caceres, playing a cello made from a red-and-white drum, said "this recycled instrument has no reason to envy those that are, apparently, more proper. It comes out with an impeccable sound.”
Standing beside him, 15-year-old Brandon Cobone supported a double bass violin made from a tall yellow barrel. He said the instrument always draws curious attention, "but it sounds marvelous.”
The kids played without complaint for 40 minutes in 100-degree (38-degree Celsius) heat and humidity. Frank Sinatra’s "My Way” and "New York, New York” led to Mozart’s "A Little Night Music” and some Paraguayan polkas.
Chavez’s kids will be performing at Asuncion’s shopping centers during the holidays.
"We’ll get some money, not very much, but it will help these families from Cateura,” he said. "They’ll be able to enjoy a good Christmas dinner.” ———
Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Phoenix, Arizona, and Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.